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Labor faction whip Eitan Cabel announced Wednesday that the party has severed contact with the coalition, after the Knesset plenum approved in a first reading a judicial reform bill that the faction vehemently opposed.

The bill, drafted by Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, would create new courts, allow the justice minister to transfer cases between courts according to the issues they address, and to determine which category of cases will be handled by each court. Critics say it is dangerous to grant a political figure such extensive authority.

Earlier Wednesday, the coalition decided to vote against the bill, essentially backing the Labor faction in its spat with Friedmann over its content, but later changed its position, approving the bill.

Consequently, the Labor party decided that it would sever contact with the coalition, meaning that faction members would not vote in accordance with coalition agreements on issues brought before Knesset committees and the Knesset plenum.

Cabel said that the "meaning of coalition is partnership, not ruthlessness." The coalition members accused Cabel of rejecting compromise proposals put forward during the course of the day. Cabel retorted that the fact that no compromise was reached over the last three weeks indicated that the prime minister instructed his coalition to behave ruthlessly.

The bill was approved at its first reading by a large majority Wednesday. During the vote, the members of the Meretz, Hadash and Balad opposition factions asked to declare the vote a no-confidence vote. In response, the coalition decided to pronounce the vote a vote of confidence, which won overwhelming support with 66 MKs voting in favor and only 16 against.

The Chairman of the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee, Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor), said in resonse that "the Labor Party will not be able to sit in a government that one day declares peace with the Palestinians, and the next day declares war on the Supreme Court. If the prime minister thinks that we are prisoners of the coalition and that he can go back on coalition agreements ? he is wrong."

"The prime minister is pushing the Labor Party into a corner," Pines-Paz added. "The government is taking over the judicial system in a bullying way that wouldn't shame dictatorial regimes."

Friedmann said that the bill would alleviate the court's work load. "The main beneficiary is the average citizen," he said. "You can't show that there is fault with this bill," he told his critics, "the only reason for objection is that the court doesn't agree with this law. There have been rumors that I am trying to mobilize cases from one court to another, and that isn't true."

Due to Cabel's opposition, Friedmann has twice been force to delay a vote on the bill.

The Knesset approved in a first reading last week two of Friedmann's bills, including one that would allow court panels consisting of fewer than three judges to rule on cases.

In a letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Friedmann, and Coalition Chairman Eli Aflalo, Cabel wrote, "Several weeks ago I announced that, as far as the Labor faction is concerned, bringing this bill for approval violates the coalition guidelines, which say 'the supreme standing of the Israeli justice system will be protected."

Cabel said he had tried to reach an agreement with the justice minister in recent weeks, but accused Friedmann of refusing to compromise.

The bill was approved by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, which obligates the Labor Party to support it. Cabel said that Labor ministers apparently were unaware of the problematic nature of the bill, and asked Vice Premier Haim Ramon to hold a Knesset plenum discussion on the Labor ministers' mistaken votes. Ramon, however, refused to do so.