(photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski)
United Torah Judaism signed a coalition agreement with the Likud late Wednesday morning after a compromise was reached on the issue of conversion reforms.
The UTJ faction met and as expected elected MK Moshe Gafni, number two on the UTJ list, to head the Knesset Finance Committee, and not party leader Ya'acov Litzman, who has held the position three times.
Gafni's victory apparently stems from his long-standing rift with MK Meir Porush, number three on the party list. During the recent Jerusalem mayoral election, the Gerrer Hasidic sect, of which Litzman is a representative, did not support Porush, allowing Nir Barkat to win.
Thanks to the support of Porush and Gafni's ally, Uri Maklev, Gafni won Wednesday's vote 3-2.
Litzman said before the vote that if he lost the Finance Committee, he would not take another job at all. So, Porush got the job of deputy education minister, and first-time MK Menahem Moses got the deputy ministerial position from which he will control the Health Ministry.
Moses spent his career building nursing homes around the country for the elderly. He represents the hasidic sects of Vishnitz and Sanz, which built Netanya's Laniado Hospital.
"I will help and take care of everyone," Moses told the Jerusalem Post. "Believe me, I know what I have fallen into. I've dealt with health my whole life."
The joining of UTJ expands Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's coalition to 74 MKs. Although all the portfolios have already been allocated, coalition chairman Ze'ev Elkin said more factions were welcome to join. He even included a clause in UTJ's coalition agreement that left open the possibility of more factions becoming part of the coalition.
"Kadima is, of course, still invited," Elkin said. "We aren't locking the door to them. The Knesset is a dynamic place."
A spokesman Uri Maklev said that the signing of the agreement with Likud was put off until after the swearing-in of the government. This was because any changes to the coalition agreements before the swearing-in would have required a 24-hour delay to allow the Knesset to review the changes.
Gafni said Tuesday night that the conversion compromise agreement was "very good."
"We made sure that all conversions require the full acceptance of an Orthodox lifestyle, including the acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot," said Gafni.
Ya'acov Weinroth, a haredi lawyer who has strong ties with the UTJ, managed to draft an agreement that was acceptable both to the religious sensibilities of UTJ's rabbinic leadership and Israel Beiteinu.
Israel Beiteinu is interested in helping its immigrant constituency, some of whom came to Israel under the Law of Return but who are not Jewish and do not claim any other religion. As a result they are unable to marry since only religious authorities - Jewish, Christian or Muslim - are permitted to conduct weddings.
In return for the changes UTJ demanded that would limit some of Israel Beiteinu's proposals aimed at making it easier to convert to Judaism, UTJ agreed to a clause that would allow Israeli citizens with no religious definition (Christian, Muslim or Jewish) to create a civil union.
The agreement was presented Tuesday morning to Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the preeminent halachic authority for Ashkenazi haredim, and received his approval.
According to Maklev's spokesman, any amendments to laws that govern conversions would have to be approved by the Chief Rabbinate.
Gafni said that another significant UTJ achievement was connected to child allowances. Instead of receiving the NIS 1.4 billion increase in allotments over three years, the increase would take place over a little more than two years.
At the end of the process families with two, three and four children under 18 would receive a NIS 93 increase per child.
UTJ also managed to ensure that all children who went to some form of educational framework, including one not recognized by the Education Ministry, would be entitled to child allowances.
Finally, the UTJ demanded that specific cities would be designated to host haredi building projects to accommodate the growing haredi population. These cities are: Kiryat Gat, Harish, Lod, Kiryat Ye'arim and Beit Shemesh.
Meanwhile, the National Union found out on Tuesday that they would not be entering the government, when the portfolio they were hoping for was given to Silvan Shalom as a last-minute gesture.
Talks between Likud and the National Union broke down last Monday when it became apparent that Labor would be joining the coalition. Since then, there had been no serious contact between the two factions.
But National Union MKs kept hope alive that they would be wanted in the coalition. Their hopes were boosted when Netanyahu told ministers who requested the Negev and Galilee Development portfolio that he was keeping it in case the National Union joined.
National Union MK Uri Ariel even met with outgoing Negev and Galilee Development Minister Ya'acov Edri to learn about the ministry.
"We could finish a deal within three hours, but it takes two to tango," Ariel said. "We may focus on helping Judea and Samaria, but we care about the entire land of Israel."
A member of the Likud's negotiating team said Tuesday afternoon that he would restart talks with the National Union after a deal with UTJ was finalized.
But three hours later, Netanyahu met with Shalom and gave him the portfolio, effectively ending the National Union's hopes for joining the coalition.
"They could have joined three weeks ago but they missed the train," a source close to Netanyahu said.