Yisrael Beiteinu Facing Off Against Shas Over IDF Conversion Bill

Bill sponsored by Yisrael Beiteinu expected to pass with a large majority, being backed by Likud, Labor, and Kadima.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his aides conducted feverish negotiations with Shas on Tuesday in an effort to broker a compromise over a bill to certify the validity of all conversions conducted by the Israel Defense Forces. But as of  Tuesday night, no compromise looked imminent.

The bill, sponsored by the Yisrael Beiteinu party, will have its preliminary reading in the Knesset on Wednesday. It is expected to pass with a large majority, as it is backed by Likud, Labor, Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu. Shas, however, vehemently opposes it.

Senior Shas MKs met on Tuesday with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the party's spiritual leader, to try to devise a solution to the conversion problem that Yisrael Beiteinu might accept, but to no avail.

Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar, a protege of Yosef's, proposed that someone from his office sign off on all IDF conversions ¬ thereby ensuring that they are deemed valid by the Chief Rabbinate ¬ and pledged to personally see to it that all such conversions are approved. But Yisrael Beiteinu rejected the idea, terming it a crude attempt by Shas to amass more power.

Yishai Lieberman Knesset Jan2010 Emil Salman
Emil Salman

On Wednesday morning, the cabinet will hold a telephone vote on Shas' appeal against the bill. If enough ministers back the appeal, the coalition would have to vote against the legislation.

Most likely, however, coalition MKs will be allowed to vote according to their conscience. Netanyahu reiterated yesterday that if no compromise is found, he will vote for the bill.

Even if the proposal passes today's preliminary reading, there is no guarantee it will become law: It could still be buried in committee.

But Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman made it clear that his Yisrael Beiteinu party is determined to legislate the bill, which was drafted by MK David Rotem. "We are advancing the law exactly as it is written. We won't change a work or a comma, and we won't postpone the vote," declared Lieberman at a Yisrael Beiteinu party meeting at the Knesset. "Israel has one real melting pot, and that is the IDF, and there is no need to harm what works," he added.

Referring to pressure applied by Shas and the ultra-Orthodox leadership, Lieberman stated "it seems cynical that the same people in the rabbinical council dictate rules to us that they themselves do not accept. They don't allow their children to marry students from Hesder yeshivas."

Denying that legislation of the controversial proposal could cause a coalition crisis, Lieberman vowed that the "government will survive until 2013."

Shas and United Torah Judaism opposition to the army conversion law has won surprising support from a rabbinical figure who is considered an ideological opponent of the ultra-Orthodox on conversion issues. "The law is bad for converts," declared Rabbi Haim Druckman, head of the Or Etzion Yeshiva, who was invited to present his position on Sunday at the government meeting.

Druckman heads a framework of special conversion courts that is budgeted by the government and associated with religious Zionism. This conversion court system encourages conversion among new immigrant citizens.

In 2008, a panel of ultra-Orthodox rabbis ruled that hundreds of conversions carried out by Druckman are illegitimate. The Haredi rabbis claim that these special courts converted numerous candidates who have no intention of observing religious commandments. Though a large number of the religious court judges who work under Rabbi Druckman also serve as religious judges for army conversions, he opposes the conferral of a special status to armyconverts, guaranteeing that their conversion will be recognized after they are

Druckman denied yesterday that his appearance at the government meeting was coordinated with Shas. "I have no connection with Shas," he told Haaretz. "What concerns me is the converts."

The proposed law, Druckman explained, "is bad for the converts ... because it will turn army conversion into a Grade B sort of conversion. It will create in the State of Israel two types of converts ¬ one with rabbinical approval, and one supported by law."

He added that his impression was that a majority of government ministers support his position on the proposed law. "All the ministers were of one mind, apart from Minister Lieberman," he said.