An emergency meeting was called last night at the Prime Minister's Office to ease tensions within the coalition following Yisrael Beiteinu's submission of a bill that would bar Jewish converts from aliyah under the Law of Return.
The meeting, held in cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser's office, was still underway at press time; in attendance were Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and MK David Rotem of Yisrael Beiteinu, Interior Minister Eli Yishai and MK Avraham Michaeli of Shas, and MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism.
Sources in United Torah Judaism were threatening to initiate a "severe coalition crisis." Their spiritual leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv has instructed them to thwart the bill - by which conversion, even if done in Israel, would be insufficient basis for requesting Israeli citizenship.
The bill is to be brought before the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee this morning for debate. It is one of two being presented by Rotem, who is also chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. The other bill, proposing some sort of civil union for Israelis who have no specified religion, is to be presented tomorrow for its second and third reading.
The bills are the result of extended negotiations between Rotem, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and representatives of Shas.
Rotem said yesterday in an interview with Haaretz that he was pleased with the agreement with Shas. However, immediately following the interview, it became clear that the bills had brought the coalition to a boiling point.
Shas, under the influence of United Torah Judaism, had seemed to backtrack on the signed agreement between Rotem and Amar, who is considered the right hand of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
The bill on conversion would also mean that the procedure could not only take place in the conversion court system headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman, but that potential converts could also approach a municipal rabbi. The law would also mean that only the president of the High Rabbinic Court could annul a conversion.
Another clause in this bill, which angered Orthodox and as well as Reform Jewish leaders, states that a person who had converted in Israel but had not entered the country under the Law of Return, could not automatically receive citizenship.
United Torah Judaism was up in arms over clauses in the bill that could greatly weaken the influence of ultra-Orthodox rabbis when it comes to conversion. It has become common for Haredi rabbis to intervene in the conversion process indirectly, mainly when converts came to them requesting services such as registration of marriage or divorce. Haredi rabbis have annulled conversions when they felt a convert was not following an Orthodox way of life.
According to Rotem's bill, the rabbis would lose this power.
Sources in UTJ said yesterday that Gafni had approached rabbis Elyashiv, Amar and Yishai over the past few days to "show them the various problems in the bills" regarding conversion, and that Rotem was leading Shas into agreements that were "very harsh."
Sources in Shas discounted these claims saying that Yishai had made it clear from the outset that the key to the bills lay in the Chief Rabbinate, and Yishai has not backtracked. "It is Avigdor Lieberman that is now making the story explosive, not us. Lieberman is the only one who now has an interest in an ideological crisis," the sources said.