Deal Sought on Conversion Law as ultra-Orthodox Dig in Heels

A compromise over a controversial new conversion law now seems likely, sources in both Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu said yesterday.

The emerging deal will apparently preserve the Chief Rabbinate's authority over conversions.

However, the parties are still at odds over who will be empowered to perform them: Yisrael Beiteinu wants all municipal rabbis so empowered, while Shas wants restrictions on which rabbis can do so.

The principal mediator is attorney Jacob Weinroth, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also working on the issue: He spoke yesterday with both Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman and Shas chairman Eli Yishai, and asked to be regularly updated on the talks. Netanyahu wants the issue resolved before the Knesset begins its spring recess next week.

But it is still not clear how United Torah Judaism - the faction that initially fomented the crisis by opposing the bill - will react to the emerging compromise. Currently, it is still threatening to quit the coalition if the bill is brought to a vote.

UTJ's continued opposition could have wider implications. Its objections are widely viewed, including by Yisrael Beiteinu, as having led Shas, which initially supported the bill, to change its mind.

Shas, however, claims that the bill's final wording differed from the wording approved by both Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar and the party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef - a charge the bill's sponsor, Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem, vehemently denies.

As it stands now, the bill would allow all municipal rabbis to perform conversions, instead of only the rabbinical courts, as is the case today. Additionally, in an effort to rein in the phenomenon of stringent ultra-Orthodox rabbinical courts overturning conversions performed by other courts - especially the special conversion courts headed by the religious Zionist Rabbi Haim Druckman - the bill states that only the president of the Rabbinical Court of Appeals can annul a conversion. That post is currently held by Amar.

Finally, in a provision that has outraged Orthodox and non-Orthodox groups alike, the bill states that people who convert in Israel will only receive automatic citizenship if they were entitled to immigrate under the Law of Return.

Rotem said yesterday that he is willing to alter this provision if another way can be found to achieve its goal - which is to prevent migrant workers from obtaining citizenship through conversion.

The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee discussed the bill for three hours yesterday, but in line with an agreement reached on Sunday, did not vote on it. Mainly, it was a chance for everyone - from right to left, Reform to ultra-Orthodox - to air their grievances with the proposal.