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Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and the Chief Rabbinic Council said yesterday that their refusal to require municipal rabbis to approve as kosher fruit and vegetables produced under the halakhic loophole of heter mechira, or the "sale permit" system, stemmed from considerations of halakha.

In their response to High Court petitions against them, their first comment about the now-monthlong crisis, the rabbis said that kashrut was a matter of a minimum threshhold, while shmita was either completely treif (ritually unfit) or not. Among the petitioners are produce wholesalers from Moshav Yanov and the Plant Marketing Board. The rabbis rejected the claim that widespread import of produce from abroad would cause Israel's farmers to lose their local market, calling it "speculative."

They also argue that they are operating based on a High Court decision allowing local rabbinic councils independence in matters of kashrut. The rabbis argue that allowing local rabbis to make their own decision constituted "pluralism in each and every community."

The state prosecutor's office has refused to defend the Chief Rabbinate's position, which a month ago allowed municipal rabbis to decide independently whether to issue kashrut certificates to grocers abiding by the sale permit. Local rabbis could not be forced to recognize as permissible what they considered unfit, the council said in a statement submitted to the court. The High Court is to consider the petitions today.

Palestinian Authority Agriculture Minister Mahmoud Habash recently approached his Israeli counterpart, Shalom Simchon, through a third party, requesting him to revoke Israel's embargo on importing farming produce from Gaza during the fallow year.

Simchon met with National Religious Party leaders earlier this week, and launched an attack on the ultra-Orthodox establishment, saying they had "declared a cultural war on Israel" and "attempted to yield profit on the back of ordinary citizens."

He urged the NRP to join his initiative to amend the Chief Rabbinate law to enable nonaligned rabbis to grant Kashrut permits to agricultural produce which had been disqualified by ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

Simchon said that the problem goes beyond the substantial losses to the industry (NIS 2 billion, according to the Agriculture Ministry figures) and the steep rise in retail prices.

The NRP leaders told Simchon that they would back his efforts to forestall outstanding imports as long as the Chief Rabbinate refuses to grant Kashrut certificates to businesses and institutions that buy local agricultural produce from farmers who had obtained a special permit.

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