(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Likud Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu attempted to attract Russian immigrant voters on Wednesday by announcing that a government led by him would pursue some version of a "civil union" to register couples who cannot be married by the Rabbinate.
He made this declaration at a press conference at the party's Tel Aviv headquarters, which was called to launch its campaign aimed at Russian-speakers.
Civil marriage is not permitted in Israel, where the Rabbinate has a monopoly over Jewish marriage and divorce. But the state does register couples who marry abroad in non-religious ceremonies.
Immigrants who are not halachicly Jewish but do not want to fly to Cyprus to marry Jews have been lobbying for years to at least be allowed to register legally as couples at the Interior Ministry.
Orthodox immigrant MK Ze'ev Elkin, who recently left Kadima for Likud, sponsored a bill in the outgoing Knesset that would allow legal registration for couples without violating halacha.
Netanyahu did not officially endorse Elkin's bill, but he said he would work to find a compromise solution to help such couples, despite warnings from Shas that it would not join any government that advances civil marriage.
"No party in the coalition with have veto power on any issue, especially on matters pertaining to immigrants that require a solution," Netanyahu said. "I will look for compromises and try to reach a consensus and not try to force anything on anyone."
A Shas spokesman responded that "the people of Israel have vomited out parties that attempted to advance ideas contrary to Judaism. The Likud is saying such things just for elections."
Netanyahu vowed to appoint "a Russian immigrant from the Likud" as a minister, hinting at the head of his party's Russian-language campaign, MK Yuli Edelstein, and not just ministers from the Israel Beiteinu party.
Edelstein predicted that Likud would win seven or eight mandates from Russian immigrant voters.
The Likud's campaign will refrain from attacking Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman, but urges his potential voters to help Lieberman by voting Likud.
"The message will be that if you want Lieberman in the government, you have to vote Likud, because if not, [Kadima leader] Tzipi [Livni] will win the election and then Lieberman won't be in the government," said the Likud's spokeswoman for the Russian press, Dina Libster.
Israel Beitenu, naturally, disagreed with the Likud's assessment.
Uzi Landau, a former Likud MK and now No. 2 on the Israel Beitenu list, responded with a statement that called on "anyone who wants the Likud to continue to fulfill the principles of the national camp to strengthen Lieberman. Israel Beitenu is the anchor of the national camp, and will protect Netanyahu."
The Likud's political opponents, meanwhile, said it would be difficult for the party to attract Russian-immigrant voters, because both of its Russian-born candidates, Edelstein and Elkin, are Orthodox.
They said Likud's image among Russian-speakers was damaged further when the party's internal court removed Vladimir Shklar from the party's list in favor of Ethiopian-born candidate Aleli Admasu.
The Tel Aviv District Court on Wednesday rejected Shklar's appeal to return him to the list.
"Bibi cannot give Russian immigrants what they want, because he said he would bring Shas into the coalition," said Kadima MK Marina Solodkin.
"Kadima can include promoting civil unions in its charter but Likud cannot," she said. "That will prevent Russian immigrants from voting for the Likud."
Haviv Rettig Gur contributed to this report.