Couples not considered Jewish according to Jewish law will be able to tie the knot in a civil marriage, following a consensus on a bill reached Wednesday between Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.

This is the first time that the religious establishment has given the go-ahead to a civil marriage and divorce procedure. However, the bill drafted by Friedmann and Amar, will be restricted to cases in which both spouses are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law (halakha).

The statement from the Justice Ministry said that these sorts of marriages would take place in a civil court and would be under family court jurisdiction.

In return for the agreement, supported by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the Chief Rabbinate's conversion authorities will be increased. The rabbinical court will act to cement its jurisdiction over conversions through legislation.

Meretz Chairman MK Yossi Beilin called the bill a "deception which does not mean civil marriage, but [which] increases the isolation and discrimination against new immigrants who are not defined as Jews."

"Instead of letting them integrate into Israeli society, the initiative places them in a ghetto, further isolating them from society. For this miserable reform, the prime minister expanded the Chief Rabbinate's powers in conversion procedures," Beilin said.

IRAC said the initiative would only solve the problem of a small minority of Israelis defined as having no religion.

The existing law does not permit civil marriage in Israel. The Chief Rabbinate's monopoly on marriage and divorce since the state's establishment has forced new immigrants, who are not Jews according to the halakha, to marry overseas.

Some 264,000 people in Israel, most of them from the former Soviet Union, are not recognized as Jews according to the Israel Religious Action Center's figures.