Netanyahu Seeks to Put Conversion Bill on Hold After Criticism From AIPAC

Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers storm out of emergency meeting of coalition party heads after argument with Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Ariel University in the West Bank, June 28, 2017.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Ariel University in the West Bank, June 28, 2017. Moti Milrod

An emergency meeting of lawmakers from the governing coalition, called by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday to address the crisis with U.S. Jews, dissolved suddenly after a heated debate on the controversial Jewish conversion bill.
 
The bill, which was designed to circumvent a High Court ruling and prohibit private conversions, along with last week’s decision to suspend planning an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, has drawn backlash from Jews in America. 

According to a senior official, Netanyahu decided to call the meeting of coalition party heads after receiving harsh messages from the heads of AIPAC on Thursday, as well as messages from other groups over the last few days.

But the meeting dissolved when two ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, Interior Minister Arye Dery, head of the Shas party, and Knesset Member Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism stormed out.

A source who took part in the meeting said Netanyahu suggested that the bill be put on hold for six months and that the petitions against it in the High Court be frozen as well by the petitioners. In this time, a committee would be established to examine all aspects of the conversion issue. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit is in favor of the proposal.

Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers Arye Dery, Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni at the Western Wall, May 2016.
Emil Salman

Dery said he found the proposal acceptable but stipulated that if the High Court issues a ruling on conversion anyway, the bill would be immediately revived. Ministers Naftali Bennet, Moshe Kahlon and Avigdor Lieberman objected to Dery's demand, saying that if the court rules on the matter the party heads would convene again and decide how to proceed. Bennett and Lieberman also demanded that any future legislation would authorize municipal rabbis to conduct conversions.  

The source said that Dery ultimately withdrew his demand and agreed to Netanyahu's proposal. Netanyahu then instructed an adviser to draft a statement that would be released by U.S. Jewish groups, welcoming the compromise.

Dery was infuriated by the move. "I know what you're doing to me, and I won't let you," he told Netanyahu, and left the meeting, followed by Gafni.

The source said that Dery was infuriated at the prospect that the Jewish groups would present the decision as a triumph over the ultra-Orthodox. 

During the meeting, Kahlon and Bennett lashed out at Netanyahu over the crisis with U.S. Jews over the Western Wall and the conversion bill. Kahlon said that Netanyahu caught him and other party heads by surprise by advancing both decisions without discussing them first. Bennett told the prime minister that "90 percent of the crisis that emerged this week was a result of your improper conduct." He accused Netanyahu of both instigating hatred toward the ultra-Orthodox and causing a rift with Jews in the Diaspora.