Netanyahu and Lieberman Court Olim at Ashdod Meet

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman attended the third Ashdod Conference for Aliyah & Klita (immigration and absorption) yesterday, and Netanyahu praised Israel's new immigrants in his speech: "Millions of olim have saved the country and strengthened it in every way. They are an integral of our fabric of life and are an enormous strength."

Netanyahu emphasized the economic situation in his speech, saying a strong economy is what brought many new immigrants to Israel. "Israel is very strong and will become even stronger with a prosperous economy," he said. Netanyahu added that there at least another million Jews in Russia and hundreds of thousands more in Latin America and Europe who will come to Israel. The prime minister said his vision is that the state will continue to absorb immigrants from all over the world.

He spoke of how during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, he visited wounded soldiers and found large numbers of new immigrants among them. "They surprised me when they said 'we want to return to our units.'" Netanyahu said that when he was their age, and a young soldier, he remembered listening to the radio while on guard duty and hearing about the great awakening of Jewish youth in the Soviet Union after the Six-Day War.

Lieberman criticized the lack of MKs at the conference. He also called for a change in thew laws on conversion to Judaism, which he said had left thousands of Israelis in limbo.

Speaking at the conference, Lieberman, who leads the hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu party, urged the state to allow chief rabbis in all Israeli cities to perform conversions. "It is unacceptable that more than 200,000 immigrants are carrying identity cards that give their status as 'no religion'," Lieberman said.

The number of immigrants entering conversion programs has plummeted following a controversial ruling in 2008 by the Rabbinical Court of Appeals, which at a stroke invalidated all conversions performed by the state-run Conversion Administration.

Yisrael Beiteinu, which enjoys strong support from the country's large population of immigrants from the former Soviet Union - around a quarter of a million of whom are classified as non-Jews or having no religion - now hopes to roll back the changes and ease the process.

"Every town's chief rabbi must have the authority to perform conversions himself," Lieberman told the conference. "In a generation's time there will be no Jews left in the world outside Orthodox Judaism, because of assimilation," he said.

This is not the first time that Lieberman, himself a Russian immigrant, has raised the issue of conversion. An attempt two years ago by Yisrael Beiteinu to restore powers to municipal rabbis ran into opposition from religious parties in the government coalition and the rabbinical courts.

Lieberman said his party was not against Judaism, and that without religion and tradition there is no way for the state to exist and any attempt to separate the state and religion would lead to a civil war.