The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approved a bill on Tuesday that would levy fines on people caught hiring prostitutes, setting up the draft legislation for the final votes it must clear to become law.
The bill, which passed unanimously, is set to be voted on its second and third readings next week before the Knesset dissolves for early elections.
“Prostitution isn’t a profession. A woman doesn’t choose to be a prostitute but is rather thrown into this dark industry because of a harsh reality of life that leads her there,” Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, a backer of the bill, wrote on Facebook after the committee vote.
Under the terms of the bill, first-time offending johns would be fined NIS 2,000 ($530), with the penalty increasing to NIS 4,000 ($1,060) for those who repeat the offense within three years. Courts would be empowered to raise the fines to a maximum of NIS 75,300 ($20,400).
The bill was first proposed as part of a reform package that Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said aimed at stamping out prostitution, along with rehabilitating those involved in the industry.
Though pimping, sex trafficking, and running a brothel are punishable under Israeli law, prostitution itself remains legal.
Green-lighting the bill in August, ministers also approved the establishment of a team to implement the recommendations of the Committee to Reduce Prostitution, headed by Justice Ministry director-general Amy Palmer.
In 2016, the Welfare Ministry estimated there were 11,420-12,730 sex workers driving the country’s NIS 1.2 billion ($318 million) industry. According to that report, 71 percent of prostitutes said they began sex work out of financial desperation, and 76% said they would leave the industry if they could.
Punishing prostitution clients was first introduced by Sweden in its 1999 Sex Purchase Act — since adopted by Norway, Iceland, Canada, France, and Northern Ireland — which requires consumers to pay a fine or face up to six months in jail.
Defending the apparent contradiction in making buying sex illegal, but selling it legal, Sweden has contended that prostitution is essentially an act of exploitation and violence by the customers, who hold a position of power and should bear the brunt of the penalty.