Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enters cabinet meeting.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided this week to withdraw his support for a law that would reform the conversion process in Israel, generating fierce criticism from coalition partner Hatnua, which advanced the proposal.
Netanyahu made the decision on a political basis out of concern for the stability of his coalition and his unwillingness to upset the two haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties in Knesset, Shas and United Torah Judaism, who have historically been allies of the Likud party.
The report has fed into speculation that a general election is imminent, and that the prime minister is preparing the ground in order to ensure that he will be in the strongest possible position to form the next government.
The proposed law would allow chief municipal rabbis to establish conversion courts in order to make the process more accessible and encourage people of Jewish descent, largely from the former Soviet Union, to convert.
The proposal was initially advanced as legislation but was subsequently reduced to the level of government order due to intense opposition from Bayit Yehudi MKs, as well as the chief rabbis and the haredi parties.
Agreement was reached within the coalition to pass the law as a government order. It has been ready for several months, but has not been brought to the cabinet’s agenda during that time for a final vote.
A Channel 2 report said that Netanyahu believes passing the law would completely destroy any vestiges of the long-standing alliance between the haredi parties and the Likud, thus endangering his chances of forming the next government.
A source in the Likud party confirmed on Tuesday to The Jerusalem Post that the decision had been political and that the conversion law proposed by Hatnua MK Elazar Stern, if passed, had the potential to strike a fatal blow against the already badly strained relationship between the Likud and the haredi parties.
The law had been designed as a political mine for the prime minister and as an attempt to destroy the Likud’s relationship with the haredim, the source said, adding that Hatnua’s frequent threats to quit the coalition merely compounded the problem for the party.
He said that the Likud did not necessarily want elections at this stage and that elections are not imminent, but added that should coalition partners prove “inflexible and do not compromise, then there will be little other choice.”
In response to the report, Stern said he and Hatnua would advance the legislative bill in the Knesset in the upcoming winter session.
Although Stern agreed to halt the legislative process in return for passing the reforms as a government order, it nevertheless remains at the final stages of the legislative process, requiring just one vote in committee in order to bring it to the floor of the Knesset for its second and third readings.
Stern noted that he had agreed to Netanyahu’s demands to advance the proposal by government order and that he had believed the repeated delays would eventually be overcome.
“It has become clear to me, to my great regret, [that Netanyahu] is not a man of his word and nor is he committed to the future of the State of Israel as a Jewish state,” Stern said.
“I will continue to advance the bill in the Knesset as soon as the new session begins next week,” he vowed.
Hatnua party leader Tzipi Livni made similar comments on her Facebook page.
“We will advance the bill in the Knesset with our liberal partners, those who do not tremble [in fear] from the haredim and who want to allow the young people living here and serving in the army the opportunity to fulfill their strong desire to convert, to marry, and to live here with us in dignity.”
Despite the prime minister’s seemingly haredi-oriented decision, Shas chairman Arye Deri said his main issue with the government was not conversion, but its social policy.
“A government that since its inception has done nothing to help young couples buy an apartment, harms on a daily basis the income of hundreds of thousands of citizens, and when they are fired does not lift a finger to help them, has no right to exist,” said Deri.
“We need to create a government based on true social values that will stop engaging in symbolism and begin to work for its citizens.”