(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
United Torah Judaism's MKs were optimistic Monday evening that they would reach an agreement with Likud and Israel Beiteinu to enter the government coalition.
MKs Moshe Gafni and Ya'acov Litzman were to meet with Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu and Israel Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman to finalize an agreement.
Likud's negotiating team was working to reach a compromise on proposed conversion reforms that UTJ could live with.
Likud faction chair Ze'ev Elkin told The Jerusalem Post in the afternoon that that every effort was being made to enable the Ashkenazi haredi party to join the coalition.
If it does, the Likud-led coalition would number 74 MKs. With this number of MKs the only party that could topple the government by bolting is Israel Beiteinu.
Sources in Likud were concerned that UTJ would threaten the stability of the government coalition if it remained in opposition to protest against proposed conversion reforms, while the Sephardi haredi Shas party joined the coalition.
Likud leaders feared that attacks by UTJ on Shas for adopting an overly lenient position on conversions would put pressure on Shas to leave the coalition.
While Shas has agreed to the conversion reforms, the haredi Ashkenazi rabbinic establishment, led by UTJ's preeminent halachic authority Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, has publicly opposed them.
Shas, under the advice of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and with the backing of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, agreed to certain changes in the way conversions are performed by rabbinic judges on the state payroll.
The Chief Rabbinate's Supreme Rabbinical Council also agreed to changes demanded by Israel Beiteinu, which include steps to be taken to make it easier for non-Jews to convert to Judaism.
For example, city rabbis approved by the Chief Rabbinate will be allowed to perform conversions. This would increase the number of rabbis permitted to convert.
The Ashkenazi haredi rabbinic establishment opposes this reform, arguing that in the 1990s when city rabbis were allowed to convert, there were several incidents of city rabbis accepting bribes in exchange for arranging the conversion.
Also, territorial restrictions on rabbinical judges' jurisdiction are to be abolished. As a result, a rabbinic conversion judge will not be restricted to converting Israeli citizens who live in his district.
But Ashkenazi haredi rabbis are concerned that potential converts will take advantage of this reform to choose the more lenient rabbinic judges to perform the conversions.
Among the compromises being proposed to counter UTJ opposition is the establishment of a rabbinic committee, to include representatives of Elyashiv, that would ultimately decide which local rabbis can perform conversions, and which cannot.
Amar has had run-ins with the Ashkenazi haredi rabbinical establishment in the past. He was attacked by Ashkenazi haredi rabbis for expressing a more lenient position on the question of determining the moment of death, to enable a wider range of organ donations.
Amar was also criticized for supporting leniencies during the shmita (sabbatical) year last year.
Over a year ago, Amar was forced to cancel his participation in a conference with women's organizations and rabbis that was aimed at finding solutions for agunot - women who are unable to remarry because their husbands refuse to provide them with a writ of divorce.
However, the present attack on Amar over the conversion issue has been particularly vigorous.
A senior rabbinical source close to Elyashiv explained the strong opposition to Amar's position on conversions that threatened to block UTJ's entrance into the government.
"Unlike issues such as shmita and brain death where the individual has his own choice whether to accept a particular opinion or not, conversions are something that affects the entire Jewish people," said the source.
"We are talking about who is entering the Jewish nation. Therefore, there must be an across-the-board rabbinical consensus. Otherwise the Jewish people will be split into separate communities. It will tear the Jewish people apart."
Meanwhile, Shas's Council of Sages, headed by Yosef, chose the party's ministers on Monday.
Shas Chairman Eli Yishai was chosen to be interior minister. Though the ministry had a modest operating budget of NIS 665 million in 2008, it also has say in the distribution of NIS 3.9 billion in government funding channeled to the local authorities.
The interior minister also has wide influence on the municipal level and is also responsible for immigration policy and citizenship issues.
Ariel Attias was tapped by the Council of Sages to serve as construction and housing minister. His portfolio includes the Israel Lands Administration.
These two entities have a combined annual budget of over NIS 9 billion. In the government coalition agreement there are directives for extensive zoning reforms that would facilitate speedy construction of housing for the fast-growing haredi public.
Ya'acov Margi was chosen to serve as the next religious affairs minister. He will replace Ya'acov Cohen, who will serve as a deputy minister in the Finance Ministry.
According to a spokesman for the Religious Affairs Ministry during 2008 Cohen managed to increase the budget for religious services by 50%.
In the 2009 budget a total of NIS 455m. is allotted for religious councils. Another NIS 88m. is earmarked for synagogues and NIS 21.4m. for conversions via the Conversion Authority. Some NIS 70.5m. is earmarked for religious services.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report