Conversion bill fight keeps coalition crisis alive

Bayit Yehudi MK and Knesset faction chairwoman Ayelet Shaked threatens party will quit coalition, topple the gov't if conversion reform bill is voted out of committee on Monday.

Ayelet Shaked  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Ayelet Shaked
Bayit Yehudi MK and Knesset faction chairwoman Ayelet Shaked threatened on Thursday that Bayit Yehudi would quit the coalition and topple the government if the conversion reform bill of MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua) is voted out of committee on Monday.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled his support for the reforms that had been converted from legislation to a government order following a compromise agreement over the issue between Stern and Bayit Yehudi due to the latter’s vehement opposition.
However, a political source within the Knesset told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that talks were held during the last two days between Hatnua chairwoman Tzipi Livni and Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman, who favors the reforms, in order to revive the legislative process in light of Netanyahu’s veto of the government order.
A hearing of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, chaired by Liberman’s ally MK David Rotem, has now been set for Monday.
“If the conversion law reaches the Knesset plenum there won’t be a coalition,” Shaked threatened in an interview with Ma’ariv Hashavua on Thursday. “Bayit Yehudi won’t let this bill pass. We will do everything possible in order to defeat it in committee before it gets to the plenum for its second and third readings. If it gets to the plenum, there won’t be a coalition.”
The heads of the parties in Netanyahu’s governing coalition decided on Wednesday to settle their differences in a new committee tasked with bridging gaps with representatives from each party. That appeared to end the coalition crisis until Shaked’s latest threat.
It would appear that those in favor of the bill have a 6-5 majority on the committee, although that does not take into account the two Arab MKs on the committee, Ibrahim Sarsour (United Arab List) and Jamal Zahalka (Balad), who have in the past been drafted by the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) to oppose the bill.
Channel 2 reported that Sarsour committed to voting with the haredim, perhaps in return for haredi opposition to suspending Balad MK Haneen Zoabi. The report said United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni told the Arab MKs that it is in their interest to block the bill “so there will be fewer Jews in Israel.”
Gafni’s spokesman denied that the MK made such a statement.
A Balad spokesman said the faction had not yet decided how to vote on Monday. Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid requested a meeting with the two Arab MKs on the bill.
Shaked said it would be better to go back to the idea of passing the reforms as a government order. Netanyahu withdrew his support for a government order, however, because he was not willing to further endanger the already strained political relationship between the Likud party and the haredi political parties for fear of losing the ability to form the next government.
Shas and United Torah Judaism are fervently against the reforms, which would allow chief municipal rabbis to establish their own conversion courts, in conjunction with another two rabbinical judges, thereby broadening access to the system and allowing more liberally inclined rabbis to conduct conversions than those who serve on the four national conversion courts.
Director of the ITIM religious services advisory and lobbying group, Rabbi Seth Farber, who helped formulate the reform proposals, said in response to the developments that he was happy the Knesset was taking the issue of conversion seriously.
“Nothing less than the Jewish character of the Israel is at stake, and if we cannot take even small steps to enable those seeking conversion to have access to the process then we are condemning ourselves to an uncertain future,” Farber said.