Tensions flare over conversion law

Israel Beiteinu, Shas and United Torah Judaism squabble at Knesset law c'tee.

March 8, 2010 04:23
3 minute read.
Lieberman on the way to a cabinet meeting on Thurs

Lieberman worried 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )


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Tensions ran high during a Monday morning session of the Knesset Law Committee on the issue of the conversion law, despite a tentative postponement agreement forged overnight Sunday between Israel Beiteinu, United Torah Judaism and Shas.

During the emergency session, United Torah Judaism MKs expressed fierce criticism of the bill, only to be shot down by committee chairman David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu). Amid concerns raised by UTJ that the bill would strip rabbis of their religious authority, Shas MK Haim Amsalem stated Rabbi Ovadia Yosef would not have backed a bill that contradicts Jewish law.

As the various factions lashed out at each other, Rotem stressed that a vote on the issue would not take place at the end of the discussion.

In an attempt to stave off a serious coalition crisis, representatives from Israel Beiteinu, Shas, and United Torah Judaism agreed on Sunday night that the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Monday will discuss the conversion bill but will not vote on it.

The compromise was reached at a late-night meeting brokered by cabinet secretary Tzvi Hauser, after UTJ announced Sunday they would oppose the conversion bill despite a deal reached between Shas and Israel Beiteinu on the matter.  UTJ mocked Shas for supporting the bill, and sources in the party confirmed that they considered the bill to be an issue worthy of creating a coalition crisis.

The warring factions also decided that the civil marriage bill will be discussed by the Knesset on Tuesday.

“The draft is against the coalition agreement,” UTJ faction chairman Moshe Gafni’s spokesman Yerach Tucker said. “We have an agreement with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that every decision on matters of religion and state has to be brought to UTJ and not just to Shas.”

Sources in the Ashkenazi haredi party mocked their Sephardi counterparts, saying that they are “not experts on key subjects.”

Under criticism from UTJ, Shas reportedly withdrew its support for the bill, according to at least one report on  Channel 10 television.

Shas representatives downplayed the severity of the situation, labeling it a “pre-crisis.” Israel Beiteinu officials also said that it was “not yet a crisis,” but slammed Shas for backtracking on what they thought was a done deal.

The warring factions met starting slightly before 10 p.m., but even before the top-level meeting got under way, Israel Beiteinu was gearing up for a war in the Knesset Monday, when the bill was set to be cleared for its first reading by the Knesset Law Committee.

After the onset of the crisis, Israel Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman decided to hold a faction meeting-turned-press conference Monday to further advocate his party’s position on the issue.

The conversions bill – which would allow current and former municipal rabbis to oversee conversions – is considered to be one of the party’s flagship issues.

The bill had been expected to advance quickly in the Knesset in the coming week. After Israel Beiteinu announced during a Thursday press conference that “a deal had been reached with Shas,” the vote in the Knesset Law Committee seemed to be little more than a formality as the bill itself was sponsored by committee chairman MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu).

On Thursday, Israel Beiteinu officials said that “the vote was made possible following lengthy contacts between Rotem and the head of the High Rabbinic Court and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, and with the agreement of [Shas spiritual leader] Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.”

But late Sunday, Shas officials revealed that what apparently caused the crisis was that Rotem misunderstood Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and thought that during talks between the two Amar said yes when he really said that he had to look into the matter further.

“Lieberman is trying to create an artificial crisis in order to distract the public from his criminal investigations. This could have been resolved peacefully, but Lieberman insists on unnecessary drama. If he wants to quit the coalition, he can,” a Shas official said.

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