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Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog (Labor) has backtracked on a bill he proposed expanding the judiciary powers of the rabbinic courts to include civil matters. Haaretz has learned that Herzog decided not to pursue the legislation following opposition within the Labor faction and harsh criticism by Orthodox women's groups and senior figures in the justice system.

"Concerns and anxieties over erosion of the status of the justice system have not escaped my attention." Herzog told Haaretz. "With the agreement of Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak, Labor ministers and faction members, I support the freezing of the legislation," Herzog added.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had promised an amendment to the Rabbinic Courts Law to Shas as part of the coalition agreement with the ultra-Orthodox party. It had already been approved by the ministerial committee for legislation, but Herzog had led its formulation in recent months. He had objected to an earlier bill granting wider powers to the rabbinic courts.

The bill would have given rabbinic courts the right to rule on financial and civil disputes if both parties chose to do so. According to the bill, disputes between a couple after their divorce could also be heard by the rabbinic court, if the couple so chose.

Debate blocked

The cabinet prevented a debate on the matter earlier this week for fear of a confrontation between Labor and Shas ministers. During the Labor faction meeting Sunday, MK Shelly Yachimovich told Herzog that the attack on him was "just the beginning" if he continued "to do things behind the backs" of his electorate and the faction.

Labor's Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon has registered an objection to the bill, and it is to be returned to the cabinet for further discussion.

Retired Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner told an Orthodox women's conference Sunday that she was "deathly afraid" of agreements between Kadima and Shas to expand the powers of the rabbinic courts.

Herzog yesterday insisted that his bill was intended to "significantly minimize damage to women in the divorce process." The original bill, proposed by Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, sought to grant the rabbinic courts even wider powers. Herzog said he had formulated the bill in cooperation with women's organization to help women whose husbands had refused to grant them a divorce.

Shas also objected to Herzog's bill, which would remove powers the rabbinic courts now have. At present, the rabbinic court issuing a divorce has the exclusive right to discuss future violations of the agreement, while Herzog's bill allows the rabbinic court to continue hearing the case after the divorce only if both partners agree.