New dispute between coalition parties

A bill strengthening rabbinical courts' authority is the focus of tension between Shas and Labor.

Herzog 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Herzog 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Disputes between Shas and Labor posed the newest threat to the coalition on Sunday, as the two largest partners in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima-based coalition clashed over a series of bills that would benefit Shas's constituency. Welfare and Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog (Labor) and Minister-without-Portfolio Ruhama Avraham (Kadima) were forced to remove a bill from the cabinet agenda to extend the authority of rabbinical courts , after the Labor Party MKs harshly criticized the legislation. Herzog was slammed by key members of his own party, including Labor chairman Ehud Barak, for proposing the bill that would strengthen the authority of rabbinical courts over marital and divorce issues and upgrade their status as arbiters of monetary matters. Under the bill, backed by Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar, rabbinic courts would be given the power to adjudicate on monetary matters connected with the divorce process such as the division of assets, child support and alimony. However, after the giving of the writ of divorce (get), the rabbinic court would not be authorized to adjudicate on new matters connected with the divorce unless both the husband and the wife agreed. Herzog has acknowledged that the bill was controversial and would need to be amended to ensure that there was a limit to the authority of rabbinic courts on spousal matters. He added, however, that most women's groups had approved the legislation. Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, who led the Labor Party's appeal on the bill in the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, said it would upset the balance of authority between the civil and rabbinic courts. "Herzog wanted to resolve long-standing issues relating to marriage and divorce, but the religious factions in Israel have their own agenda vis a vis this bill. All parties involved understand that this bill is problematic, and I can only hope that the problems surrounding it can be ironed out," Simhon said. Labor MKs Shelly Yacimovich and Ophir Pines-Paz also criticized the bill, joining in Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann's statement that it would destroy the judicial system's balance. A Labor Party spokesman said Herzog was making "dirty deals" with Shas and with the country's religious leadership to further his own political ends. Kadima officials attempted to work behind the scenes to resolve the dispute with Labor, and to encourage them to work with Shas to revise the bill. "Labor understands that the situation with Shas is very delicate at the moment. We need to make certain compromises on legislation to ensure that the coalition stays intact and the peace process moves forward," said a Kadima MK. Shas has asked that the rabbinic court bill move forward as quickly as possible, calling it a top priority for the party and its constituency. MK Shlomo Benizri said Sunday that Shas was paying a high price to remain in the government. "We are under a lot of pressure to leave the coalition," he said. "My phone has been ringing off the hook with calls not only from Israel, but from all over the world." Shas has come under heavy pressure to leave the government after it became clear that talks between the prime minister and the Palestinian Authority had touched on a possible division of Jerusalem. Rabbi Meir Mazuz, head of the kabbalistic Kiseh Rahamim Yeshiva, attacked Shas for remaining in the coalition even after Olmert had begun negotiatons with the PA on dividing the capital. Mazuz, know for his right-wing views, enjoys wide support among Shas's voters, and is credited for at least one of the party's seats in the Knesset. Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's son, Ya'acov, a respected rabbi who has been estranged from his father since Shas's abstention enabled the Oslo Accords to pass in the cabinet, publicly accused Shas's political leadership of ignoring the party's spiritual leadership, the Council of Sages. Although neither Ya'acov Yosef or Mazuz are part of the official Shas leadership, they nevertheless reflect the extreme disappointment of much of Shas's constituency with the party's refusal to leave the government. Benizri said his party expected Olmert to mitigate some of Shas's electoral damage by making concessions on socioeconomic and religious issues important to its constituents. "We have other objectives besides protecting Jerusalem," said Benizri. "Rabbi Ovadia is not a person who gives in to pressure, especially at a time when we stand to gain a lot from remaining in the coalition. Besides, it makes no sense to leave the government now if there is a good chance that Meretz will replace us. We plan to stick around a little longer to try to make some political gains." Specifically, Shas is demanding a reversal of some of the cuts in child allowances instituted in 2003 during Binyamin Netanyahu's stint as finance minister. The cuts, aimed in part at forcing haredim off the dole and into the job market, have seriously hurt larger families, many of whom are Shas supporters. According to the latest National Insurance Institute Poverty Report for the second half of 2006 and the first half of 2007, 60 percent of families with four children or more live under the poverty line. The state has been phasing out graduated child allowances in which families with more children received more per child. Today a family receives NIS 152 a month per child for the first two children, NIS 182 for the third and NIS 337 for each additional child. This is a considerable reduction compared to the benefits offered prior to 2003 that were the result of concessions to haredi political interests. Also, in Shas's coalition agreement with Kadima, it was agreed that rabbinic court jurisdiction over arbitration in monetary matters and in divorce law would be anchored in legislation. Last week the Ministerial Committee on Legislation unanimously approved Herzog's bill, which legal experts have criticized for creating a two-tier legal system - one religious and one secular - that would foster disunity and tension. In addition to the clause which was objected to in Sunday's cabinet meeting, Labor MKs have challenged an amendment that would give rabbinic courts full statutory powers to arbitrate in monetary matters when the two parties involved agree. Dr. Ruth Halperin-Kadari, head of Bar-Ilan University's Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women and an expert in family law, likened the bill to comments made recently by the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, who said that Britain would have to accommodate use of Islamic Shari'a Law by its Muslim residents.