Conversion Bills Likely to Increase Netanyahu-Lieberman Tensions

Nixing the two Yisrael Beiteinu bills puts the prime minister and the foreign minister on a collision course.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to freeze legislation on two bills on conversion proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu, at the behest of Jewish community leaders in Israel and abroad, which is likely to increase already existing tensions between the prime minister and the Yisrael Beiteinu chairman, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Netanyahu announced yesterday that agreement had been reached with the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel not vote on a civil conversion bill - which would allow municipal rabbis to perform conversions - for another six months. Meanwhile, he is expected to accede to the demand of Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar to withdraw his support from the military conversion bill.

lieberman netanyahu - Emil Salman / Tomer Appelbaum - September 12 2010
Emil Salman / Tomer Appelbaum

Shas wants Netanyahu to stop progress on the military conversion bill proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu, in return for resolving their conflict over the legitimacy of conversions by military rabbis. Amar has appointed a committee of rabbis who are to retroactively approve thousands of conversions of soldiers by military rabbis and decide on arrangements for cooperation between military rabbis and the Chief Rabbinate.

Before the committee makes its recommendations, apparently early next week, Shas and Amar want Netanyahu to pledge that the military conversion bill be removed. Netanyahu voted for the bill in its preliminary reading in the Knesset last month.

Agreement to freeze the civilian conversion bill was reached with the mediation of Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky. In exchange for the moratorium, the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel have agreed to hold off on their petitions to the High Court of Justice on the conversion issue. The movements intended to petition the High Court to recognize non-Orthodox conversions in Israel.

With regard to Amar's initiative on military conversions, MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu ), who proposed the bill, told Haaretz: "I am very happy, because that means that the bill caused the rabbinate to approve the [military] conversions. The main thing from my point of view is that the conversions will be recognized, but I don't intend to give up on the bill. Who can promise me that the cabinet won't change the decision?"

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director general of the Reform Movement, congratulated Netanyahu and Sharansky on the continued moratorium.

Yizhar Hess, director general of the Conservative Masorti Movement, said that after weighing the matter, and with "an uneasy heart," they had decided to accept the proposal to freeze continued legal steps in exchange for an additional six-month freeze on legislation.