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The Constitution, Law and Justice Committee of the Knesset approved registration fees yesterday for new type of civil marriage that will be available to a limited number of Israelis when a new civil union law ("brit zugiut" in Hebrew ) comes into effect next week.

The new law allows registration of couples in which neither individual is Jewish according to Jewish religious law, halakha, and the two are deemed to have no other religion.

Committee chairman MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu ) who was the sponsor of the law, said yesterday that it only dealt with part of the issue presented by the absence of civil marriage in Israel. He said he intends to submit an additional bill for a vote by the current Knesset providing for civil unions for the entire population, not only those without a religion.

According to the Israel Religious Action Center, there are about 300,000 immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union who are not considered Jewish. About 30,000 of them have non-Jewish spouses and therefore qualify under the new law. According to the sponsors of the law, however, about 150 couples a year are expected to register for civil unions.

The current civil union law was passed by a large margin in the Knesset in March as one of the commitments made to Yisrael Beiteinu to enter the governing coalition. In the cabinet, the law received the support of the ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, although the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism factions refrained from voting on the measure when it came before the Knesset for approval.

The Tzohar rabbinical organization, which is involved in promoting Jewish identity in Israel and assists immigrants from the former Soviet Union in proving Jewish family roots, called the official Knesset committee action approving registration fees for civil unions a "very partial solution to a broad problem."

The director of the Masorti movement, Yizhar Hess, which represents the Conservative Jewish movement in Israel, welcomed the new law as the first step in the establishment of civil marriage in the country, paving the way for broader provisions enabling Israelis to marry under auspices other than the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. "At the moment," he added, "in the height of absurdity, only those who manage to prove that they have no religious affiliation can benefit from the arrangement."