The coalition crisis over Israel Beiteinu’s conversion bill is solvable, Shas officials said Monday, hours after Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman stressed that his party’s goal in pursuing the bill, as well as the civil unions law, was not to undermine religious authority.
“Those who want to break up the coalition can do it. But if there is a will, the issues can be resolved in 24 minutes, not 24 hours,” said Shas Chairman and Interior Minister Eli Yishai.
Shas officials emphasized that although a conversion law is called for in the coalition agreements, and that there were “intensive talks” to reach an agreement on the issue, “anyone who wants to know what happened should compare [Israel Beiteinu MK David] Rotem’s preliminary bill that passed to the current version.
“[Chief Sephardic ] Rabbi Amar made an effort to reach an agreement, but our legal review said the bill was too different from the Rotem bill that passed.”
The reference was to the private member’s bill that Rotem had originally submitted, and that passed the plenum in preliminary reading. At issue now is a reworked bill that is before the Knesset Law Committee, which is meant to vote to clear it for first reading as a government-backed bill.
Shas officials emphasized that they are still working to reach an agreement that will better “prevent allowing Reform conversion under the law” and advocated that municipal rabbis who want to be permitted to oversee conversions get special authority to do so from the Chief Rabbinate.
“Conversion requires expertise,” a Shas official explained. “It’s a complicated issue. The gap is not wide. It is possible to reach an agreement. But if they don’t want to reach an agreement, we will.”
After tensions rose Sunday night, Lieberman also tried to play down the crisis.
“I am sorry that things unraveled they way they did,” Lieberman said at the onset of his faction meeting at the Knesset.
“Israel Beiteinu respects tradition but rests on the principle of live and let live. We are not Shinui,” he said, referring to the now-moribund party reputed to be anti-religious.
Lieberman refused to answer the question whether he would lead his party out of the coalition if the civil union bill fails to pass the Knesset Law Committee vote Tuesday so it could advance to the plenum for its final readings. The bill would legalize civil marriages in cases where both partners are registered as not having a religion.
The conversion bill, Israel Beiteinu believes, will now be brought to a vote before the Law Committee next Monday.
“We have no interest in breaking up the coalition,” Lieberman continued. “We dealt with issues that are central for us carefully and sensitively. We met for a year with many rabbis from every [religious] stream. In the past six months, the negotiations focused on [Chief Sephardic] Rabbi Amar.
“Intensive negotiations brought results and [last] Wednesday [Israel Beiteinu MK David] Rotem signed the agreement on the bill for conversion with Rabbi Amar,” Lieberman relayed, adding that Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman was also involved in the talks.
“Rotem received the blessing of Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef,” Lieberman continued. “We were a bit surprised on Sunday to hear that Shas was backing down from the agreement.
“It’s not about Jewish law but rather due to disputes between [Ashkenazi haredi party] United Torah Judaism and Shas. They have gone back on [the agreement that city rabbis can conduct conversions]. To say you can trust city rabbis on burial, kashrut, bar mitzvahs, and so on, but not on one issue – conversion – is simply heresy,” Lieberman countered.
“I appeal to people’s common sense. This impacts 80,000 children with nothing in the nationality clause on their identity cards. It is an intolerable situation,” he added.
Speaking after Lieberman, Rotem – who sponsored both the civil union bill and the conversion bill – dispelled claims that he had only negotiated with Shas and not with UTJ.
“I met with UTJ and Degel Hatorah people in the homes of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Rabbi Yosef Efrati. But they were unwilling to compromise, so we made the agreement with Shas, the largest haredi faction,” said Rotem.
UTJ faction chairman Moshe Gafni responded, however, that Rotem did not meet with Elyashiv – the pre-eminent halachic authority of the Lithuanian haredi community – but only with Efrati, considered Elyashiv’s “right-hand man.” Gafni accused Israel Beiteinu of “hiding” the contents of the bill from them, and added that “we can’t be part of a coalition that passes such a law.”
“Lieberman might be doing this because of his own problems,” suggested Gafni.
But responding to similar insinuations that the turbulent topics were being aired now to divert attention the recent media storm around allegations Lieberman was tipped off on one of his investigations by an envoy, the foreign minister explained that crisis erupted now due to forces unrelated to him.
“The timing is now because Rabbi Amar and Rabbi Ovadia endorsed [the
bill] last week. So Israel Beiteinu is not responsible for the crisis,”
Meanwhile, attorney Yaakov Weinroth, who Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu had appointed to mediate between Shas and Israel Beiteinu,
was working on a compromise late Monday night. A Shas source said that
a meeting between Weinroth, Amar and Neeman after press time was a
possibility. Dan Izenberg contributed to this report.