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Same-sex couples can adopt children who are not biologically related to either partner, according to a recent ruling by Attorney General Menachem Mazuz. The decision means that homosexual and lesbian couples will be able to adopt children through the department of child welfare or a third party.

Mazuz's decision marks a watershed in granting equal rights to gays and lesbians in the sphere of family law. Until now, Mazuz had confined his activities to social and financial areas only.

In a discussion of the issue initiated by Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog and reported in Haaretz two months ago, it was determined that the term "ben zug" (partner, or spouse) in the Adoption Law includes a partner of the same sex and that it follows from this that a same-sex partner can be permitted to adopt the biological or adopted children of his or her partner.

In addition, there is no legal bar to approval of a homosexual or lesbian couple's request to adopt a child who is not the offspring of either partner. The Welfare Ministry's department of child welfare (DCW) is authorized to approve adoption by a same-sex couple under the same circumstances as adoption by a single person.

Mazuz emphasized that he addressed only the legal considerations of adoption by same-sex couples, and that individual cases would be decided by DCW professionals in accordance with the best interests of the child. He added that the principle of "the best interests of the child" is a complex one that cannot be met using inflexible formulas. There is nothing in the principle that dictates that the adoption of a child by a same-sex couple is not in the best interest of the adoptee, Mazuz said. However, he said that the sexual orientation of the prospective adoptive parents is a relevant consideration in determining the candidates' fitness to adopt.

The latest session on the issue was held at the request of Herzog, who has made promoting the possibility of same-sex adoption a goal. In the past few months a number of same-sex couples have applied to adopt through the DCW, and Herzog decided to view these cases as precedents for future same-sex adoptions. In 2006 a total of 270 children were adopted in Israel: 100 from within Israel, and 170 from abroad.

"I welcome the decision," Herzog said yesterday. "There is no reason why same-sex couples who meet the criteria for adoption should not be able to join the process of adoption and of parenthood. We must adapt to the spirit of the times and the changes that are afoot."

In recent years, there have been two significant legal precedents regarding adoption by same-sex couples. In 2000, the High Court of Justice accepted the petition of Ruti and Nicole Brenner-Kaddish, after receiving an adoption order for the biological daughter of one of the women in California, and ordered the Interior Ministry to register the adoption. Two months ago, the state promised the High Court that the Interior Ministry would view this ruling as binding and would register the adoptions of other same-sex couples in possession of an adoption order issued abroad.

Shas chairman Eli Yishai called Mazuz's decision "shocking and disgusting," and said he viewed "with great seriousness the repeated trampling of an injury to the family unit. The Welfare Ministry is championing a shocking initiative that represents a mortal blow to the status quo and thus to the coalition agreements, any change to which must be acceptable to all coalition partners."

Ruth Sinai and Yair Ettinger contributed reporting to this article.