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(photo credit: AP)
Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman is ready to back a Likud-led coalition, rather than a Kadima-led government, provided would-be prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu pledges to push through his demands for civil marriage and an eased conversion process, The Jerusalem Post established on Wednesday.
Lieberman is also seeking to be appointed to a senior cabinet position, such as defense minister or finance minister, wants Daniel Friedmann retained as justice minister, is strongly advocating electoral reform and wants the next coalition committed to toppling Hamas in Gaza. But those demands are not an absolute precondition for him backing Netanyahu in the wake of Tuesday's election, it is understood, and neither is a pledge of progress on other key Israel Beiteinu policies including enacting a loyalty oath.
If his demands for easing the conversion process and instituting civil registration for couples who cannot get married by Orthodox law are not met, however, Lieberman is emphatically prepared to ally his party with Kadima instead. Those two demands are regarded as crucial to the party's credibility with its voters.
When asked about serving in a government together with Lieberman following a meeting with Netanyahu at the Knesset on Wednesday, Shas chairman Eli Yishai said that "more extreme partnerships had been made," and Shas leaders insisted that suggestions that the party's spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had branded Lieberman "Satan" were inaccurate.
Still, Lieberman's insistence on civil marriage and eased conversion are anathema to the ultra-Orthodox Shas, another crucial component in any narrow Likud-led coalition.
And some of Lieberman's demands would likely prove unacceptable to either prime ministerial candidate.
A source close to Netanyahu responded sarcastically to Lieberman's declared demands by stating that "the Likud would [have to] give away all the top portfolios and leave nothing for itself."
He then responded officially by saying that coalition negotiations had not begun yet and no portfolios had been discussed.
Lieberman convened the Israel Beiteinu faction at Jerusalem's Shalom Hotel on Wednesday to decide on conditions for joining a coalition.
"A government needs to be formed as soon as possible that can make decisions," Lieberman told the MKs.
"The country has been paralyzed for six months with municipal elections, general elections and now with forming a government. That prevents burning economic and security issues from being dealt with," he said.
Lieberman won 15 seats at the helm of Israel Beiteinu, according to the vote count completed overnight Tuesday. But the party hopes it may yet make further gains when soldiers' votes and surplus votes are tallied.
In a victory speech on Tuesday night, he said he wanted to join "a right-wing government" if this proved possible.
"That's our wish, and we don't hide it," he said.
Netanyahu's chances of forming a narrow "blocking" coalition depend on winning the support of the hard-to-reconcile Shas and Israel Beiteinu. Yosef all-but branded Lieberman the devil last week at the height of the campaign, asserting that it was "forbidden" for voters to support "people who do not have Torah, people who want civil marriages, shops that sell pork, and the army enlistment of yeshiva students... Whoever does [support them] commits an intolerable sin.
"Whoever does so supports Satan and the evil inclination."
Last summer, Lieberman vowed that he would not join a coalition with Shas, which he blamed for thwarting "legislation that Israel Beiteinu views as essential" on conversions, civil marriage and electoral reform. In the wake of the elections, however, he is not vetoing Shas per se, the Post has learned, but he is nonetheless insisting on legislation that is anathema to Shas.
Specifically, he wants couples in Israel to have the option of civil marriage - a union between a man and a woman to live together as partners, recognized by the state, but without a religious component. Some modern Orthodox authorities endorse such an approach, arguing that it might solve many halachic problems, but the ultra-Orthodox establishment adamantly opposes it.
Similarly, Lieberman wants an easing of conversion procedures that would smooth a path into Judaism for some 300,000 Israelis who came here under the Law of Return but are not recognized as halachically Jewish. He also seeks the reversal of the invalidation by the rabbinical establishment of tens of thousands of conversions approved over the years by Rabbi Haim Druckman, the former head of the National Conversion Authority, and also wants city rabbis to be allowed to perform conversions.
Tellingly, Netanyahu has turned to former justice minister Yaakov Neeman to coordinate his coalition-building effort. Neeman pioneered an innovative but ultimately unsuccessful effort to involve leaders from all streams of Judaism in teaching courses for converts, whose final conversion would be approved by the rabbinic courts.