Conversion bill debate heats up

Rabbi Amar and Shas leader Yishai respond to PM's opposition to bill.

Eli Yishai 311 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Eli Yishai 311 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Prominent Sepharadic leaders responded harshly to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's announcement that he would oppose the conversion bill proposed by Israel Beiteinu MK David Rotem.
Chief Sepharadi Rabbi Shlomo Amar called Sunday on the haredi parties to leave the coalition, if the prime minister does not support the new, controversial bill.
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"If you fear the Reform [Jews], you won't have a state," Amar said in comments addressing Netanyahu on a haredi radio station.
Shas leader and Interior Minister Eli Yishai also criticized Netanyahu's comments and said, "If there is no conversion law, the matter will tear the nation apart. The lack of a conversion law is a grave spiritual danger to the Jewish nation."
These comments came as relations between Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have reportedly hit a low after the government's budget meeting and the prime minister's reaction to the conversion bill. The two plan to meet on Monday to mend ties.
Netanyahu on Sunday said the bill could tear apart the Jewish people. The prime minister plans to try to reach an agreement with Israel Beiteinu over the bill, however, if the bill is not removed, Netanyahu said he plans to tell the Likud and other coalition parties to vote against it.
Rotem said he doubts that Netanyahu will stand by his opposition to the conversion bill in an interview with Israel Radio on Sunday.
"Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is impressionable, and in the end he'll fold in this case, too," Rotem said. "This law has nothing to do with American Jewry. The law will pass, in the end the prime minister will support it and even vote for it."
Netanyahu reportedly called Lieberman over the weekend, while the foreign minister was in Kazakhstan, in order to update him on the prime minister's upcoming trip to Cairo, and to discuss the budget. Netanyahu and Lieberman agreed to meet on Monday.
However, Lieberman also plans to call a press conference on Monday in which he will air his grievances against Netanyahu, Israel Radio reported.
Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu, the government’s second-largest faction (15 MKs), has geared up for a long fight over the budget, with the party’s ministers boycotting Friday’s vote to protest cuts to their ministries, while battling in the short term to bring the controversial conversion bill to a plenum reading before week’s end. Israel Beiteinu ministers claim that Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz ignored agreements with the party.
In reaction to Israel Beiteinu's criticism, Steinitz said: "In my opinion, the crisis is not economic, but political. If there are realistic requests, then we can try to respond to them and solve the crisis."
Previous Lieberman-Netanyahu problems
Over the weekend, Lieberman also appointed veteran diplomat Meron Reunen as the next ambassador to the UN without informing Netanyahu. This is reportedly retalliation for six months ago, when Netanyahu prevented Lieberman from bringing his preferred candidate, former consul-general in NY Alon Pinkas, to the cabinet for approval. Reuven’s appointment is a temporary one, meaning that it does not have to go to the cabinet for approval. One foreign ministry official, however, said that after a few months the appointment would most likely become permanent.
Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer slammed Lieberman's behavior in an interview with Army Radio on Sunday, saying "the foreign ministry can't be a war ministry. It has to be a ministry that gives a message of peace."
About his meeting with the Turkish foreign minister, Ben-Eliezer said "I would do it again."
This comes after a number of crises in Israel Beiteinu-Netanyahu relations. Recently, Lieberman only learned about a meeting in Brussels between Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu from Channel 2 news. After the incident, sources close to Lieberman vowed revenge.
Previously, Lieberman complained that Netanyahu did not make efforts to bring Israel Beiteinu-drafted legislation to plenum readings, such as allowing Israeli citizens outside of Israel to vote, and a law allowing civil marriages.
Israel Beiteinu ministers slam new budget
“Israel Beiteinu is the senior partner [in the coalition],” Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said following the cabinet meeting, “but we’re treated otherwise. I say to the government and to the prime minister: We’ll meet in the Knesset."
We’re voting against the budget – it will not pass!” During a Friday interview with Israel Radio, Aharonovitch complained that his ministry’s budget had been trimmed by approximately NIS 700 million.
Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, also from Israel Beiteinu, blasted the cuts to her ministry’s budget request.
“This is the first time since the establishment of the State of Israel that aliya is not on the government’s agenda,” Landver said. “The proposed budget is directly harming the absorption and encouragement of aliya. I call upon Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to get involved, because he said that the absorption of olim is a priority for our government.”
Israel Beiteinu ministers, including Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov, who was supposed to have been the party’s point man on the budget, complained that Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud) had not consulted with them before making the cuts. They said that other coalition parties had received better treatment.
Rebecca Anna Stoil and Herb Keinon contributed to this report.