Peres asks leading rabbi to compromise on conversion bill

After UTJ MK Gafni asks president to intervene, Peres visits Rabbi Shteinman in his Bnei Brak home.

March 11, 2010 05:37
3 minute read.
MK Moshe Gafni

MK Moshe Gafni 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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President Shimon Peres visited 98-year-old Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman at the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak Wednesday in an effort to resolve the crisis over proposed conversion legislation.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni had asked Peres to intervene after Shteinman had pressed UTJ to resign from the coalition to protest attempts by Israel Beiteinu to enable municipal rabbis to authorize conversions, which currently must go through the Chief Rabbinate.

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“I ask you to assist in keeping the people united so that we can continue to maintain the nation of Israel and all its streams,” Peres told the rabbi. “You have the wisdom to look into the small details and fix the situation.”

A source close to Peres called the meeting successful and expressed hope that Shteinman would compromise. Attorney Yaakov Weinroth has been mediating between the haredim and Israel Beiteinu but has not yet succeeded in reaching a deal.

“We are now in a government crisis over the conversions issue,” Gafni said. “Under the current conditions, we will be forced to quit. I am asking the president to intervene and prevent a coalition breakup before the crisis reaches its peak.”

A group of demonstrators from the radical haredi Naturei Karta group protested outside the meeting and condemned Peres.

Meanwhile, for the second time in as almost as many weeks, Kadima presented a bill similar to one submitted by Israel Beiteinu in an attempt to humiliate the coalition party on the basis of its inability to advance legislation that it had promised its voters.

The alternate conversion bill, a bill similar to Law Committee Chairman MK David Rotem’s (Kadima) bill, but without a controversial clause, had little chance of passing its preliminary vote on the house floor.

Instead, Kadima used the opportunity to make impassioned speeches against the coalition and especially Israel Beiteinu and to call out for humiliation specific MKs who had personal conflicts of interest in voting against a bill to ease conversions.

MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima) blasted Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for failing to take a stance in the fight over the bill within the coalition, between Israel Beiteinu and haredi parties Shas and UTJ.

“You can’t hide behind your coalition partners, because that isn’t leadership,” chided Hasson. “The Israeli public expects you to be the one who will solve the problem and will bring about a situation in which we can convert those who want to be converted. That is your responsibility. The Jewish People are in your hands.”

But coalition representatives, including Environmental Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan slammed Kadima for hypocrisy, emphasizing that when Kadima led the government with Shas as a coalition partner, Kadima’s MKs had voted against similar conversion bills.

After the heated exchanges, Kadima requested that the vote on the bill be held through a roll call, in order to single out MKs for their choices. The majority of Labor representatives, and a handful of Israel Beiteinu MKs and ministers were absent from the floor at the time of the vote, but the only MK to openly break with coalition discipline was MK Einat Wilf (Labor), who later tried to rescind her vote in favor of the bill.

Wilf, despite personal reservations, voted in favor of Kadima’s earlier attempt at a civil unions bill, and said afterwards that she would in the future find a better solution to maintaining coalition discipline.

“I wanted to show with my vote that Labor has a position on matters of religion and state,” Wilf said.

Similarly, among the Israel Beiteinu MKs absent from the vote was Rotem himself, but MK Anastasia Michaeli (Israel Beiteinu) a convert to Judaism, refused to clearly state “for” or “against.”

After Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) accused her of knowingly violating Knesset procedure, Michaeli was not allowed to register a vote on the bill, which was defeated by a vote of 48-22.

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