UTJ rejects offer of health or social affairs portfolio

Haredi party to be given chairmanship of Knesset Finance Committee.

Litzman 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Litzman 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The United Torah Judaism Party on Sunday rejected the Likud's offer of either the health or the social affairs portfolio and reiterated its demand for the Construction and Housing Ministry. "We said from the beginning that we want the housing portfolio," said MK Moshe Gafni, who is leading the coalition negotiations for UTJ, together with MK Ya'acov Litzman. "The housing shortage in the haredi sector has reached catastrophic proportions. Through this ministry we can help our constituents the most," Gafni said. The portfolio was also demanded by the National Union. However, Shas, the Sephardi haredi party which has 11 MKs compared to UTJ's five and the National Union's four, has already been promised the Housing Ministry, which is expected to go to MK Ariel Attias. He would also be responsible for the Israel Lands Administration, which controls much of the country's land. Shas seems to be on its way to cinching several additional portfolios which are considered particularly attractive to haredi interests. Shas Chairman MK Eli Yishai is expected to be interior minister, whose ministry controls local government budgets as well as citizenship issues such as determining "who is a Jew" under the Law of Return. Shas is also expected to receive a cabinet-level position responsible for haredi budgets in the Education Ministry. In addition, the party is expected to receive the Religious Services Ministry. Two of its MKs are vying for the post: Ya'acov Margi and Ya'acov Cohen. UTJ, in contrast, is expected to receive the chairmanship of the Finance Committee. UTJ is also demanding a deputy minister in the Education Ministry and a deputy minister of religious affairs. It is still unclear which UTJ MK will be appointed Finance Committee chairman, even though faction head Litzman previously held the post for several years. The decision will be made by a vote among UTJ's five MKs. It is still unclear whether Meir Porush would support Litzman, even though both represent Agudat Yisrael, the hassidic wing of UTJ or whether he will prefer Degel Hatorah's Gafni. Litzman and Porush have had a strained relationship since the Gur hassidic sect, of which Litzman is a member, actively opposed Porush in his bid to become mayor of Jerusalem. The Likud's offer of the health portfolio to the UTJ was a new development. Nevertheless, Shas appears to be emerging as the better potential champion of haredi interests. In addition to the various portfolios, Shas and UTJ have made several budgetary demands, including a NIS 1.5 billion increase in child allotments for families with a third and fourth child. The haredi parties are also demanding that each married yeshiva student receive be funded to the tune of at least NIS 1,000 a month while each single yeshiva student should get NIS 600. This is estimated to cost NIS 1.1b. Meanwhile, a special rabbinic committee was to decide Sunday night whether or not UTJ could support a law that would allow Israelis who are not Jewish, Christian nor Muslim to marry. Israel Beiteinu has demanded that marital reforms constitute part of its coalition agreement with the Likud. Presently, all marriages in Israel are conducted by religious authorities - Jewish, Christian or Muslim. There is no option of civil marriage. As a result, Israelis who do not identify or belong to one of these religions have no marriage option, forcing them to leave the country to marry. This is something Israel Beiteinu hopes to change. However, Shas won't approve any legislation that would permit a union between a Jew and non-Jew. UTJ has so far opposed civil unions even between two non-Jews. If the rabbis give the UTJ an okay it could pave the way to matrimony for at least those thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not halachicly Jewish and do not define themselves as either Christians or Muslims. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the senior halachic authority of the Lithuanian yeshiva world and Rabbi Ya'acov Aryeh Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe, appointed a committee of three rabbis to rule on the issue, among them Rabbi Yitzhak Zilberstein, Elyashiv's son-in-law and rabbi of Bnei Brak's Ramat Elchanan neighborhood. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar have already supported allowing non-Jews to marry in a civil ceremony. However, in the summer of 2007, when Amar first publicized his halachic opinion on the matter - which he called a "Noahide Union" - the Ashkenazi haredi media reacted with a flurry of recriminations, claiming that Amar was undermining the status quo. The haredi dailies Yated Ne'eman and Hamodia quoted leading halachic authorities who used the "slippery slope" argument against any marital reforms. One haredi source estimated Sunday that the special rabbinic council would not allow any changes in the status quo. "Israel Beiteinu has already gotten almost everything it asked for," the source said. "[Avigdor] Lieberman won't jeopardize everything for marital reforms."