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Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman took to the Knesset podium Tuesday to try to calm the political storm he caused this week when he said that "step by step, Torah law will become the binding law in the State of Israel." Neeman made his controversial remarks Monday evening at a convention on Jewish law in Jerusalem.

On Tuesday Neeman clarified his statements, saying they had been taken out of context. He said he meant that since the Israeli justice system is overburdened, an alternative system like the rabbinical court system could help relieve the pressure.

After his words on Monday were broadcast on Army Radio a day later, Neeman appeared in the Knesset. But he did not retract his statements. "I hear the calls from all directions and I want to point things in the right direction," Neeman told the Knesset.

"It is difficult for me to accept the things that were attributed to me, as though I had said that the laws of this country should be replaced with Torah laws. Yesterday I emphasized the importance of the rabbinical court system to the State of Israel. The Knesset is the legislator in Israel, and the interpretation of its laws is determined by the courts."

The justice minister reiterated his praise for the courts that "resolve financial disputes in accordance with the principles of Jewish law."

He says that "we must bring back the heritage of our fathers to the nation of Israel. The Torah has the complete solution to all the questions we are dealing with."

On Monday, Neeman spoke at the opening session of the annual conference of the organization Halichot Am Israel. Rabbi Ratzon Arussi, the Kiryat Ono's chief rabbi, heads the organization, which wants to make Jewish law part of Israel's justice system for civil cases. Rabbi Arussi is a law professor with a doctorate in law and teaches at Bar-Ilan University. He is considered close to religious Zionism.

Many statements during the conference were received with applause from participants, among them Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Other guests at the event included Likud MK Yisrael Katz, Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger.

But Neeman's response Tuesday did not calm the situation. "If the justice minister presents a plan in stages, step by step, to reach a theocracy in Israel, he needs to be ousted immediately," former justice minster Yossi Beilin told Army Radio. "After that horrible statement, every minute the prime minister allows him to remain in his post, he is supporting what he said - even if he disagrees."

Kadima chairwoman and opposition leader Tzipi Livni harshly criticized Neeman's comments, saying they should be troubling to "every citizen who cares about what happens in Israel in terms of its values and democracy."

MK Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor), a member of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, called for the committee to meet with Neeman soon to hear his explanations. "A hidden agenda was revealed here that expresses a dark worldview," Pines-Paz said. "A justice minister who does not believe in the system he is responsible for needs to ask himself what he is doing in his job."

Former justice minister David Libai said he assumes Neeman does not seek to change Israel's Declaration of Independence, which states that Israel will be based on the foundations of freedom, justice and peace in the light of the prophets of Israel - and not on Torah law. Libai said he assumes Neeman plans only to occasionally integrate Jewish law into legislation.

Neman's remarks particularly drew criticism from left-wing politicians, including Meretz leader Haim Oron and Hadash chairman Mohammed Barakeh.

"It is unfortunate that the justice minister has detached himself from the State of Israel's basic values and is being disloyal to civic and national principles," Oron said yesterday, playing on Neeman's name, which means "loyal" in Hebrew.

"His remarks reflect a disturbing process of Talibanization occurring in Israeli society," Oron added.

Barakeh called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to remove Neeman from his post, saying that "the man who sees his main role as establishing a fundamentalist Israel is a threat to the country's democracy."

Another former justice minister and law professor, Amnon Rubinstein, said Neeman's plan "would amount to severing the majority of Israel" from the state, and mean most of Israel's judges would have to be replaced by rabbis.

In the wake of the uproar caused by his remarks, the Justice Ministry issued a statement Tuesday denying that Neeman intends to replace Israel's legal system with Jewish law.

The justice minister "wishes to clarify that these remarks were not a call for Jewish religious law to replace the laws of the State of Israel, either directly or indirectly," the ministry said.

"Minister Neeman spoke in broad and general terms about restoring the stature of Jewish law and about the importance of Jewish law to the life of the country."