By DAN IZENBERG
Despite strong criticism from opposition MKs and human rights and other civil society organizations, Knesset Law Committee chairman David Rotem barreled ahead on Tuesday with his plans to promulgate a bill calling for civil unions as quickly as possible.
Rotem hoped to complete the debate and the vote on the bill for second and final readings during a single meeting scheduled to last four hours, but had to vacate the room an hour early without completing the proceeding.
But Rotem, an Orthodox MK from Israel Beiteinu, was the first to admit that the bill, which he had to hammer out within the constraints of the coalition, which also includes Shas, United Torah Judaism and Habayit Hayehudi, was less than what he really wanted.
"This proposal is not the finished product I would have liked to present," he said. "However, it is an extremely important step in the process of resolving this key issue. The next stage will take place in 15 months, in accordance with the coalition agreements, and I am hopeful that we will be able to solve the issue of civil union in a way that is agreeable to all parties."
If approved, as is likely, the legislation will for the first time allow a small number of Israelis, classified as having no religion, to form state-recognized unions that are almost the same as marriages but have no religious element.
The measure was initiated by the government as part of the conditions of Israel Beiteinu to enter the coalition and has already passed first reading.
According to the bill, the government will appoint a registrar for civil unions. On condition that neither partner belongs to a religious community recognized by the state, they may reach an agreement and bring it for confirmation to the registrar.
Before the union is confirmed, the registrar will publish the details of the request and each religious court will have the opportunity to examine whether either member of the couple belongs to its community. If there is a dispute over the matter, the religious court will make the final decision.
Once the union is registered, the couple will have the same rights as married couple except for two matters. They will not be allowed to adopt a child or to use the services of a surrogate mother for 18 months after their union is confirmed, and they will not enjoy the status granted members of a married couple according the Citizenship Law, the Entry to Israel Law and the Law of Return.
The most controversial element in the proposal is the fact that it applies only in cases where both members of the couple are registered as having no religion. Thus, couples in which both partners are Jewish or belong to any of the other recognized religious communities in Israel cannot join in civil union, and the same applies to "mixed couples."
Ilan Gilon (Meretz) called the bill "bad, awful and not serious."
He warned that it would discriminate against one group and preserve the Orthodox monopoly on the individual's private affairs. "We are not ready to compromise on this matter," he said.
Maria Solodkin (Kadima) urged the Law Committee to approve the bill, even though it did not go far enough. "This bill partially solves the problem," she said. "I will then submit a private member's bill that goes much further."
Rotem made clear that this was his idea as well. "The aim of this bill is to make a breakthrough," he said. "The dam will not be able to survive once there is a crack in it."
Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) said she supported the bill but opposed the idea that it was just the first step toward much broader legislation.
"We must allow this bill to pass but without regarding it as an opening to be widened later," she said.
Human rights groups and other social action organizations submitted an opinion to the committee before Tuesday's hearing.
The organizations, including the Reform Movement's Israel Religious Action Center, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Society of Homosexuals, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgenders, Na'amat and the Women's Network, wrote that the bill would affect only 170 couples, constituting 3.8 percent of all the couples who marry abroad each year.
They also warned that it would strengthen the Orthodox establishment by giving it a say in determining who is eligible to enter a civil union.
The proposed arrangement was discriminatory since it did not grant civil union couples the same rights as married couples, they said.
"The time has come to correct the injustice of decades whereby Israeli citizens and residents are deprived of their basic right to marry whoever they choose in the way they choose," the organizations wrote. "We call on you to oppose the bill and not let it through the committee."
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