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Analysis: PM under pressure on conversion
By REBECCA ANNA STOIL AND GIL HOFFMAN
13/07/2010
"Lieberman’s pressure is only factor that could counterbalance pressure placed on Netanyahu."
 
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has sailed over more than one coalition crisis since he formed the government over 16 months ago, but it was evident Monday that the pressure was on as he and his advisers shuttled back and forth trying to find a way out of the current situation: Israel Beiteinu MK David Rotem’s controversial conversion law has pitted coalition parties against each other, and by all accounts, the prime minister has embarked upon a delay-tactic campaign to push the first reading of the bill as far away as possible.

The coalition fractures were already visible early in the morning, when Labor reiterated its opposition to Rotem’s bill – which would, among other things, delegate the authority to carry out conversions to municipal rabbis in an attempt to streamline the conversion process. The bill’s opponents complain that the same clause effectively provides legal backing for the authority of the Chief Rabbinate over all conversions, and threatens the status of those who converted overseas through non-Orthodox rabbis.

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But while Labor’s opposition was anticipated, Rotem was surprised to discover that none of the Likud MKs who sit on the Law Committee that he chairs had appeared for the meeting. All of the Likud MKs denied that their absence was intentional or due to orders from the prime minister to allow the bill to pass, or due to opposition to the bill; rather, they all had previous engagements. One staffer suggested that had coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) been present, he could have pressured MKs to attend – but as his wife was in labor, his presence in the Knesset was missed.

Likud MKs’ offices also said that in the day before the committee votes, they had received phone calls from key American Jewish organizations asking them to oppose Rotem’s bill.

Without support or opposition from the governing party, the committee passed the legislation on to its first reading on the Knesset floor – but that was where Rotem’s plans to push the bill through as quickly as possible ran aground on the coalition’s shores. A number of different people, including Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and MK Nahman Shai (Kadima) met with the prime minister to convey the concerns of world Jewry regarding the controversial bill.

While Rotem maintained that the bill would be brought up for a reading on Monday, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin – and Netanyahu – had already promised that the vote would not be held that day. Knesset officials added that the vote would not be held at all this week. The bill is unlikely to be voted upon next week, which marks the end of the Knesset’s summer session, as Monday is a shortened session because of Tisha Be’Av, no Knesset session will be held on Tuesday, and Wednesday is likely to be devoted to unfinished business from Monday.

But Netanyahu’s largest coalition partner had other ideas. Striding into his weekly faction meeting Monday afternoon, Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman said he expected the vote to be held “as soon as possible.” Lieberman’s pressure is the only factor that could counterbalance the pressure placed on Netanyahu by international Jewish organizations. Netanyahu, said observers, is all too aware that the decision pits coalition obligations toward Lieberman against gains recently made in American Jewish public opinion following his meeting last week with US President Barack Obama.

Even if the vote is held, the future of Rotem’s bill remains uncertain. With Labor – including Defense Minister Ehud Barak – unanimous in its opposition to the bill, the coalition’s margin would be narrowed to a mere 63-57. In addition to the freshman Likud MKs whose fundraising ability overseas could be threatened by support of an unpopular bill, a number of senior Likud ministers have also made their opposition clear.

Ahead of the Likud faction meeting Monday, Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein told The Jerusalem Post that “it is painful to see that the same people who helped us out over the past year in North America and other places in the battle for Israel’s international image and interests are being hurt by an unnecessary amendment to conversion legislation advanced in the Knesset. There was no problem to increase the number of conversions without adding words that are perceived by the vast majority of Diaspora Jews as exclusionary and discriminatory.”

Intelligence Affairs Minister Dan Meridor backed up Edelstein’s comments, saying that the government “should be doing everything possible to avoid upsetting the majority of North American Jews who are Reform and Conservative.”

With the open opposition of senior party members – as well as an entire coalition party – to the bill, Netanyahu would practically be forced, even if a vote were held on the bill, to remove coalition discipline and allow members to vote their consciences. If that were the case, then delaying the bill, while not aiding the bill’s sponsors, could be the only thing keeping it alive at all.
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