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The Knesset yesterday extended maternity leave from twelve to fourteen weeks. The bill was supported by 95 members of the legislature on its third reading while none voted against. The move will take effect in a matter of days and apparently apply to women who give birth as early as next week.

In addition, mothers of multiples were given a longer extension over single births and will now be entitled to 17 weeks maternity leave. The longer time off work will effect 139,000 women annually. Because the measure is expected to cost the state NIS 220 million to 400 million annually, it needed the support of more than 50 MKs.

Gideon Sa'ar, who chairs the Committee on the Status of Women and is a sponsor of the bill, said that when Israel introduced maternity leave in 1954, it was a pioneer, but has since lagged sharply behind other Western countries.

In Ireland, maternity leave is 18 weeks, and in England it is 26 weeks. The new leave is the minimum stated by the European Union. Sa'ar said the longer leave will encourage extended breast-feeding and improve the relationship between mothers and their newborns.

The bill was co-sponsored by Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) and Dov Khenin (Hadash). Khenin called the new law "a substantial improvement for young families." He called the bill's passage proof that good public mobilization and cooperation in the political system can overcome a government "that opposed the measure every step of the legislative process."