Netanyahu and Lieberman Try to Mend Differences Amid Crisis Over Conversion Bill

Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to meet later Monday; Netanyahu's opposition to the conversion bill is perceived as a message to Lieberman, in the wake of the latter's threat not to support the budget.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are to meet today to find a solution to their disagreements and to demands for funding from Lieberman's fellow Yisrael Beiteinu ministers, in return for their support of the budget.

But the crisis between the two is far from over. Netanyahu said in Sunday's cabinet meeting that he would not support Yisrael Beiteinu's conversion bill. In response, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and deputy prime minister Eli Yishai (Shas ) said Shas would leave the coalition if the legislation was not passed soon.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset in 2009.Credit: Archive / Tess Scheflan

Netanyahu's opposition to the conversion bill is perceived as a message to Lieberman, in the wake of the latter's threat not to support the budget.

"The law could create a rift in the Jewish people. Efforts will be made to remove the bill by consensus but if not, I will ask Likud and other members of the coalition to oppose it," the premier said.

Lieberman is to hold a press conference at the start of a Yisrael Beiteinu faction meeting, before meeting with Netanyahu. Sources in Yisrael Beiteinu said the foreign minister would "probably hurl harsh words at Netanyahu, but will also convey a conciliatory message. As of now, we have no interest in going too far and leaving the coalition."

Meanwhile, opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni (Kadima ) and Defense Minister Ehud Barak met yesterday in Tel Aviv. Although the official reason for the meeting was given as an update on security matters, the two also discussed political issues. However, Livni and her party insist they will not enter the coalition to replace Yisrael Beiteinu unless the government's platform changes.

Yishai yesterday joined Yisrael Beiteinu in supporting the conversion bill, saying, "lack of a conversion law could crate a rift in the Jewish people."

For his part, Amar called on the ultra-Orthodox parties to leave the coalition if the legislation is not passed. In an interview with Israel Radio, Amar said: "I told Prime Minister Netanyahu if, heaven forbid, he permits Reform conversion, we will be turning the people into two parts, meaning one part will not intermarry with the other ... This is not a social crisis," he added.

"Those who lose out are those who do not follow the Torah and the commandments. We won't be able to marry them. Such things have happened before. If [the ultra-Orthodox] follow my advice, they'll stand together and tell [Netanyahu]: 'Pass the conversion law or we'll leave.'"

Amar said he fears most that the issue will come before the Supreme Court. "We are being eaten up by the Supreme Court little by little ... and when the test comes, the prime minister becomes afraid. He has to know that if he's afraid, he won't have a government," he added.

The cooperation between Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu over the conversion bill could pressure Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz into advancing the budgetary interests of the two parties.

However, sources in Yisrael Beiteinu said yesterday: "Shas' surprising embrace will help us promote the conversion bill, but it's a bear hug from which Yisrael Beiteinu will have to be released quickly so the party's image won't suffer."

Netanyahu's associates said yesterday he was willing to seek solutions to a number of disagreements with Yisrael Beiteinu, but he will not compromise on the conversion legislation. The prime minister will reportedly tell Lieberman today that he will not agree to any version of the bill that harms the unity of the Jewish people.

Netanyahu's associates said other issues, such as Lieberman's choice for United Nations ambassador and the state budget, can be solved. The sources said that there is nothing wrong with the foreign minister expressing his own ideas on diplomatic issues, but that as in every government in the past, the prime minister is the one who decides policy.

Netanyahu's opposition to the conversion proposal raised the ire of the bill's sponsor, MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu ), who said the premier "can be pressured" and would eventually vote in favor.

Speaking yesterday on Army Radio, Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver (Yisrael Beiteinu ) had a message for Netanyahu: "We don't threaten, we act. Anyone who tries us will get slapped back - a very very painful slap."



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