Conversion Controversy Threatens to Thwart Likud Coalition Cobbling

Last year's High Rabbinical Court decision to invalidate thousands of conversions conducted in Israel could become a major issue in coalition talks.

Members of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party asked Likud yesterday to clarify its position on the matter after Yisrael Beiteinu requested recognition of conversions and accelerated activity in the special conversion courts, which the ultra-Orthodox do not recognize.

UTJ has said its coalition talks with Likud are contingent on the party's rejection of Yisrael Beiteinu's requests. UTJ chairman Yaakov Litzman met with Likud's Reuven Rivlin yesterday, but as of press time they did not appear to have reached an agreement.

The High Rabbinical Court ruled in April that thousands of conversions conducted in the rabbinical conversion courts headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman were invalid. The decision sparked a political, religious and legal firestorm. Two weeks ago the rabbinical judge appointments committee rejected a recommendation to dismiss the rabbi who headed the panel that annulled the conversions.

Another snag in coalition talks between the two parties concerns internal rivalries in UTJ, and relates to tensions between its two component factions, the Hasidic Agudat Yisrael and non-Hasidic Degel Hatorah. Already on the day after the election, Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu held talks with three UTJ MKs - Litzman, Moshe Gafni and Meir Porush - because of the split within the party.

Shas chairman Eli Yishai also met with Litzman, Gafni and Porush, each of whom represents a separate ultra-Orthodox group.