Gulf Remains Between Parties on Proposed Knesset Conversion Bill

The efforts to end the coalition crisis over proposed conversion regulation reforms continued yesterday, as attorney Jacob Weinroth introduced an initial document containing amendments to the proposed bill.

The document was passed on to Shas, United Torah Judaism, Yisrael Beiteinu, and the Prime Minister's Bureau. Sources involved in the negotiations confined their comments on the document to saying there were still considerable gaps between the parties.

Weinroth was tasked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with finding a compromise between the parties.

Shas and United Torah Judaism are demanding a significant retraction of many of the conversion reforms proposed by MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu). The most contentious point is the proposal to empower former municipal rabbis to bestow conversions, almost without supervision.

UTJ wants the authority to empower rabbis to convert granted instead to the Chief Rabbinate, where the more conservative ultra-Orthodox bloc enjoys a strong majority.

An agreement between UTJ and other parties was reached yesterday on another clause of Rotem's bill, which the UTJ feared would allow recognition of non-Orthodox conversion processes taking place in Israel.

Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman said yesterday that unless a compromise was reached by next week, when the Knesset takes its spring recess, he will bring the bill to a vote and pass it with the help of Kadima and other opposition parties, a move sure to embarrass the government and rock the coalition.

Meanwhile, a much reduced version of the civil partnership bill, originally introduced by Rotem, was opened to second and third reading votes in the Knesset. The current version of the bill allows for a marriage-like partnership between two people defined as having no religion and confirmed as non-Jews by a rabbinical court.

Although Rotem claimed yesterday the "all or nothing approach" achieved nothing at all in the last 60 years, the reduced bill was slammed by left-wing parliamentarians.

"This a horrendous, terrifying bill," MK Dov Khenin (Hadash) said after the vote. "It's a catastrophe, an assault on the status-quo that gives more rights to the rabbinic courts. They're making up this legal creature that's going to assault every man's dignity and freedom."

MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) also attacked the bill, saying the it was a "sleight of hand and a bluff."

MK Orit Zuaretz (Kadima), who converted to Judaism at age 6, said yesterday: "Speaking as someone who'd undergone conversion, I traversed a Via Dolorosa to be recognized as a Jew and to be married as a Jew - because religion had been appropriated by the ultra-Orthodox."

Meanwhile, even as Netanyahu's coalition struggles to extricate itself from the conversion bill crisis, another controversial piece of legislation on church and state is making its way to the parliament floor.

UTJ MKs Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev will ask the Knesset today to vote, in a preliminary reading, on a bill expanding the authority of rabbinical courts into civil law.