Yaakov Neeman (Emil Salman)
Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman Photo by Emil Salman
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Major disagreement has broken out among a public committee looking into the legal aspects of child custody in divorce cases.

The panel is due to submit its final report to Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman in the coming weeks. Disagreement among the committee members resulted in the resignation of one panelist, Daphna Hacker of Tel Aviv University's law faculty.

The major point of contention among committee members recently was how the courts should come to a decision when presented with similarly persuasive arguments over which parent should have physical custody of the children. The panel debated possible factors that would apply as a "tiebreaker" in such cases, on the assumption that one parent must have primary custody.

Efforts to forge a compromise between panel members with diametrically opposed views on this issue have been unsuccessful, according to comments by the panel's chairman, Dan Shnit, in a draft of the committee's final report that was obtained by Haaretz.

Another committee member, Abraham Sagi-Schwartz, who heads the child development research center at the University of Haifa, said the committee's report would recommend eliminating the concept of visitation rights and parental custody from the country's divorce laws. Instead both parents would be responsible for the child and would have contact with him or her.

Organizations with an interest in the issue are coming to conflicting conclusions on the impact of the final document that is meant to summarize the committee's activities since 2005.

"The committee was empowered in its letter of appointment to examine whether it is possible to eliminate custody of young children and the need to make changes," said Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, director of Bar-Ilan University's center for the advancement of women's status, who added: "The conclusion, which is not subject to more than one interpretation, is that custody of young children should not be eliminated.

"There is a legal advantage in child custody [being granted to mothers] and it reflects the current societal situation," she said. "I, too, share the desire to expand the role the father takes, giving him an active role, but we're not there."

Sources in the court system say the absence of a decision on how to handle the issue of a tiebreaker, so that in practice one parent has primary custody, casts doubt on the impact of an interim report by the committee in 2008.

In its 2008 report, the committee recommended that joint parental custody be ordered in divorce cases involving young children, which the law defines as those up to age 6. Traditionally there has been a presumption in Israeli law that young children would be in the custody of their mother.

Hearings held after the release of the interim report centered on whether rules governing civil and religious courts in custody cases should also be revised.

Peretz Segal, the committee's coordinator, said that the panel's approach has not changed since its interim report, and there is no basis to the claim that the committee members were deadlocked.