Israeli Justice Minister Scraps Panel That Examined Child Custody Issues

Ayelet Shaked about-faces on promised divorce law update.

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Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Six months after announcing the establishment of a professional committee to examine questions relating to custody and child support, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has decided to scrap the panel.

Consequently, the question of whether to amend the laws governing these issues will be returned to the Knesset.

But the governing coalition is bitterly divided over one of them – a proposal to either abolish or reduce the legal presumption that the mother should get custody over young children in the event of divorce.

Child support, in contrast, is a less contested issue, because the Chief Rabbinate effectively upstaged proposed legislation a year ago by adopting regulations that fulfill the same purpose. Until last December, men were liable for full child support regardless of how much their ex-wives earned. Under the new rules, the rabbinical courts must take both parents’ earning power into account before deciding who should be liable for how much child support.

When Shaked announced her plan to establish the committee back in June, she said it made sense to consider both issues together rather than each one separately. She said the committee would also examine various other issues related to divorce, such as prenuptial agreements, the rabbinical courts’ authority to conduct arbitration, and the practice whereby some men refuse to grant their wives a divorce unless the woman agrees to concede part or all of her share in their joint property.

“All these issues are intertwined, and the conclusions must deal with all these issues together,” Shaked told the Ministerial Committee for Legislation at the time.

Shaked’s office told Haaretz that she has now decided to scrap the panel because both proponents and opponents of changing the custody law agreed that the committee was superfluous. But while several men’s organizations applauded that conclusion, noting that various other professional bodies had studied the custody issue in the past, women’s organizations said they regretted Shaked’s decision.

Nor were all Knesset members satisfied with the decision. Just last month, coalition chairman David Bitan criticized Shaked over the fact that her proposed committee, which Knesset members had hoped would come up with a workable compromise on the custody issue, had yet even to meet. And MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Habayit Hayehudi), the sponsor of one of the competing bills on this issue, said, “It’s impossible to discuss only the tender-years presumption; that’s part of an ensemble of issues.”

One of the two bills, sponsored by MK Yoav Kish (Likud), seeks to abolish the presumption in favor of women entirely. In contrast, Moalem-Refaeli’s bill merely seeks to narrow its scope a bit: Instead of women getting almost automatic custody over children up to age 6, she proposes a cutoff age of 4.

Late last month, Bitan announced that the coalition had reached a compromise over the issue: Both bills would be passed in preliminary reading, after which the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee would merge them into a single bill that would not eliminate the presumption in favor of women entirely, but would reduce the cutoff age farther than Moalem-Refaeli proposed, probably to around 2.5 years. Moreover, the law would only be temporary, meaning it would automatically lapse after a certain number of years (the exact number would be determined by the committee) unless the Knesset extends it.

One week after that announcement, both bills were supposed to be brought for their preliminary reading. But the vote had to be canceled, because Moalem-Refaeli’s bill hadn’t yet been discussed by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which formally decides how the coalition should vote on every bill.

The ministerial committee then decided to hold a quick telephone vote approving the bill without a meeting. But Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel (Likud), who backs Kish’s bill, appealed the panel’s decision to approve Moalem-Refaeli’s bill to the full cabinet, thereby forcing a delay.

Moreover, Kish and Moalem-Refaeli are now at odds over which committee should discuss the bills after they pass their preliminary reading. Moalem-Refaeli supports Bitan’s proposal of sending them to the Constitution Committee. But Kish is demanding that they be sent to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, headed by MK Yfat Shasha-Biton (Kulanu), who, like him, supports abolishing the presumption in favor of women entirely.

The Schnitt Committee, a panel set up by the Justice Ministry in 2005, recommended abolishing the presumption in favor of women entirely. A study conducted by the Knesset legal advisor’s office in 2012 found that most other Western countries have abolished this presumption.

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