Can Neeman bridge the ideological gulf between Lieberman and Shas?

Netanyahu looks to savvy ex-justice minister to help him build a coalition.

neeman 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
neeman 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Disputes between Shas and Israel Beiteinu over state-religion issues seemed to be a main factor in the decision by Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu to appoint Prof. Yaakov Neeman as his lead coalition negotiator. Between 1997 and 1998, Neeman chaired a committee that tried, and ultimately failed, to formulate an agreement which would enable all streams of Judaism - Reform, Conservative and Orthodox - to agree on a uniform conversion process. Shas and Israel Beiteinu are split on the issue of civil unions in lieu of marriage. Israel Beiteinu is pushing to break the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly over marriages, which are presently conducted in strict accordance with halacha. As a result of the Orthodox monopoly, about 300,000 Israelis who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union under the Law of Return but who are not Jewish according to halacha, cannot marry in Israel. Many are Israel Beiteinu voters. Halacha dictates additional marital prohibitions. For instance, divorced women are forbidden to marry kohanim, members of the Jewish priestly class. Shas claims that any change to the religious status quo would be strictly forbidden and tantamount to apostasy. It has vowed to fight any attempts to alter this status quo. But Israel Beiteinu is resolved to end the present situation in which tens of thousands of citizens are unable to marry here. The party also argues that there are leading religious Zionist rabbis who support the concept of civil unions in principle. Israel Beiteinu is also interested in reforming the state-controlled conversion process to make it easier for non-Jews to convert to Judaism. Shas, in contrast, is strictly opposed to any leniency in the conversion process. One of Neeman's tasks will be to overcome these differences and pave the way for Netanyahu to form a coalition that includes both Shas and Israel Beiteinu. What might make Neeman's job difficult is the bad blood between the two parties. Last week, Shas's spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef compared Avigdor Lieberman, Israel Beiteinu's chairman, to Satan, and warned that anyone who voted for the party was a sinner whose sin could never be pardoned. Nevertheless, both Shas and Lieberman signaled Wednesday that they did not reject outright becoming coalition partners. "There have been in the past more extreme examples of opposites coming together," Shas Chairman Eli Yishai said, after a meeting with Netanyahu. "The people chose a right-wing government but that does not rule out a wide coalition. Everyone is speaking to everyone." Shas MK Nissim Ze'ev said that he saw no problem with his party and Israel Beiteinu cooperating in a government coalition. "On the vast majority of issues, such as security and diplomacy matters, we agree," said Ze'ev. "On the issue of civil marriages we will have to consult with our rabbis." One Shas source said that Yosef's attacks on Lieberman were a tactical move to bring back voters who, he feared, would desert Shas for Israel Beiteinu. "Rabbi Ovadia's appearances in the media attacking Lieberman before the elections brought us between two and three Knesset seats," said the source. "It was not personal. It was an election trick." Lieberman hinted Tuesday night after the election results were announced that his party would take revenge against Shas for its attacks. But MK David Rotem, No. 8 on the Israel Beiteinu list, said Wednesday that he saw no problem sitting in the same government with Shas. "It's true that Shas staged an ugly campaign against us," said Rotem. "It was a real desecration of God's name to use a deceased righteous rabbi to further a political agenda." Rotem was referring to Rabbi Baruch Abuhatzeira, know as the Baba Baruch, who claimed that his father, the revered mystic Baba Sali, came to him in a dream and warned against voting for Israel Beiteinu. "Of course we will stand by our principles," said Rotem, "including moving forward with legislation which will allow for nonreligious commitment ceremonies [brit hazugiut]." Rotem said that it would not be humiliating for him to sit with Shas. "Why should it be? We have 15 Knesset seats while they have only 11. That's what counts," he said. Netanyahu and Neeman are old political cronies: Neeman, who was never an MK, was brought in by former prime minister Netanyahu to serve first as justice minister and later as finance minister between 1996 and 1998. But more relevant to the present challenges facing Netanyahu, Neeman has advised Netanyahu on relations with the religious and haredi communities. One of Neeman's acquaintances, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that Neeman was perfect for the job of bridging the religious differences between Shas and Israel Beiteinu. "He is a man who has good ties with the haredi world, in part through his work as an expert in tax law," said the source. "But as a modern Orthodox Jew, he is also very familiar with the secular world. And he is also a political animal in the good sense of the word. He is one of the few people I know who really believes in fostering the unity of the Jewish people."