Netanyahu Says He’ll Block Conversion Reform Because of Orthodox Opposition

After getting bad news, PM’s coalition partner blasts him for caving in again to religious pressure.

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Hatnuah party's leader, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2013.
Hatnuah party's leader, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2013.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his coalition partners Monday that he will not allow proposals on conversion reform – the flagship initiative of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah party – to advance any further in the cabinet, because the ultra-Orthodox parties, the chief rabbis, and major religious-Zionist rabbinic figures object.

The reform would have allowed local rabbis to set up conversion courts and permit conversion candidates to choose the rabbinic court they wished to convert under, regardless of where they lived. The move was aimed at significantly easing the conversion procedure for thousands of non-Jews who have difficulty meeting the tough requirements set by conversion courts in recent years.

The reform was meant to be advanced as a cabinet decision, rather than through legislation, as Hatnuah had wanted. But in recent weeks Netanyahu has repeatedly delayed a vote on the proposal. On Monday, he ordered the issue removed from the agenda of the cabinet meeting scheduled for Tuesday, and made it clear to Hatnuah’s chairman, Livni, that he would not advance the proposal because of Haredi objections.

The initiator of the original legislation, MK Elazar Stern, had worded his bill in cooperation with the Religious Services Ministry and the bill had passed its first reading in the Knesset several months ago. But efforts to reach agreement on the final wording of the bill repeatedly failed.

Netanyahu’s decision is a blow to Hatnuah, which had made conversion reform one of its primary goals. But the party made it clear that it had no plans to bolt the government or threaten a coalition crisis over the decision, saying it believes it can get the original bill passed in the Knesset even without the support of the Likud.

Stern was strongly critical of Netanyahu.

“He has a problem with credibility and he has a problem with making decisions on issues of religion and state, as well as on the Palestinian issue,” he told Haaretz. “When the Haredim are in the coalition, they ruin the Jewish identity of the state because they’re in the coalition. When they’re in opposition, the government conducts itself as if one day they’ll be in the coalition. What [Netanyahu] is doing here pains me. Not from a political perspective; to me this is a serious ethical problem.”

Stern added, “This is a serious dispute over the Jewish and democratic identity of the State of Israel – is it in the hands of the majority of the people, or of the Haredim and their representative, the prime minister?”

But many members of Hatnuah believe Netanyahu’s move might actually end up promoting the reform. In the absence of a coalition agreement or cabinet decision, Livni can bring Stern’s original legislation for its second and third readings in the Knesset, where the party thinks it could have a majority, with Hatnuah, Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beiteinu, Meretz and perhaps the Arab parties voting in favor, even as the Likud, Habayit Hayehudi and the Haredi parties oppose it.

As one Hatnuah source put it, “Whoever didn’t want conversion reform as a cabinet decision, will get it as Knesset legislation.”

Some party sources, in fact, said that this what Netanyahu really wants – to maintain his alliance with the Haredim, but to acquiesce to the reform becoming law “through the back door,” as it were.

Livni wrote on her Facebook page on Monday that her party will continue promoting the conversion reform bill. “If a decision isn’t advanced by the cabinet, we will advance the bill in the Knesset with the help of our liberal partners, those who do not fear the Haredim and who want to allow young people who live here and serve in the military to actualize their intense desire to convert, to marry, and live here with us honorably.”

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