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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The unlikely bedfellows at the center of Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu's coalition-building efforts - Shas and Israel Beiteinu - are perceived to have an unbridgeable distance between them - Jewish law.
The right-wing nationalist Israel Beiteinu wants to ease the conversion process and create civil unions - a union between a man and a woman to live together as partners, recognized by the state, but without a religious component - while the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas sees such moves as an affront to their party's principles, and more importantly to halacha.
But according to MK David Rotem, the only outwardly religious member of Israel Beiteinu, the inability of both parties to sit with one another in a Likud-led government has less to do with Jewish law than it does politics.
"I don't think halacha is the issue here," Rotem told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
"We have no problem with Jewish law, in fact we very much respect it. Our requests are fully within the realm of halacha and we are in no way seeking to change it," he said.
Insisting that the disagreements between the two parties were in fact bridgeable, Rotem said that he thought political motives were behind their inability to agree on conditions that would allow both of them to sit in a Likud-led coalition.
"The problems between Israel Beiteinu and Shas are political," he continued. "And I think it's absolutely possible to find solutions to them."
The disagreement over conversions, Rotem explained, was simple.
"We're asking that conversions be deferred to the local rabbi in each city," he said.
"Not only is that within the bounds of halacha, the city rabbis all have mehadrin [the strictest level of rabbinic] ordination. If my city rabbi can handle the mikvas and the eruv, why can't he handle conversions?"
With regards to civil unions, a slightly thornier issue, Rotem said he agreed with the opinion of Haifa Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, who has come out in favor of such an arrangement, to assist non-Jews in Israel to marry one another. However, it was somewhat unclear if the Israel Beiteinu-backed law would apply equally to Jews and non-Jews.
"Let's put it this way," he said. "The law we would pass is for every man and woman. I'm willing to make different appropriations for Jews and non-Jews, but the main problem needs to be addressed. People who want to be married in Israel [and cannot be married through the rabbinate] must go to Cyprus or live without any agreement at all."
But Shas categorically rejected Rotem's assertions on Sunday, telling the Post that the "only ones playing politics were Israel Beiteinu."
"What Dudu Rotem told you is what he thinks or what he sees," said Shas spokesman Ro'i Lachmanovitz.
"I'm not saying it's impossible [to find a solution to these problems]," he said, "but Shas's stance is that we check these things with the Gedolei Israel [the Sages of Israel], and we bring them to the table of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef."
While Lachmanovitz agreed that finding solutions to the problems surrounding the conversion process was slightly easier, he said resolving the issue of civil unions was more or less an impossible feat.
"I don't see any way in halacha that a Jew can marry a non-Jew," he said.
"It's the same as what we've said about conversions: We're willing to look into ways of easing the bureaucracy [for the conversion process], but we will never go against Jewish law. It's in Israel Beiteinu's interests for them to tell you that the solutions to these problems are easy, or political, but our interests are to guard halacha and uphold the opinion of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef."
Nonetheless, Lachmanovitz conceded that there may be a a spark of light at the end of the tunnel, saying that through negotiations, and insisting that halacha be respected, solutions may be found to the problems.
But solutions to these problems do come with a time stamp. The first deadline is Wednesday, when President Shimon Peres receives the official election results and begins the process of forming a government. Lieberman is expected to make his recommendation to the president on who he thinks should form the next government the following morning, and the final deadline to form a government comes April 7.
Adding a touch of urgency to the debate, however, Kadima on Monday accepted Israel Beiteinu's list of coalition demands and Avigdor Lieberman's party said it hoped Likud would soon follow suit.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.
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