Coalition Row Over Conversion Bill Continues

YERUSHALAYIM -

A week after the Netanyahu government coalition performed like a well-oiled machine to pass the chareidi draft bill and other contentious legislation, coalition discipline disintegrated on Wednesday, as the Jewish Home party walked out on a no-confidence vote in the Knesset to protest the conversion reform bill being advanced by the coalition.

Coalition chairman Yariv Levin (Likud) retaliated by removing all Jewish Home bills from the docket, including Economy Minister Naftali Bennett’s plan to lower food prices, The Jerusalem Post reported.

“The Jewish Home never learned coalition discipline or commitment to agreements,” Levin said following the walkout. “I will not give in to extortion.”

A Jewish Home spokesman said the MKs left the plenum on Bennett’s orders, after a new article was added to the conversion bill without the party’s prior knowledge. The fracas flared on Tuesday when Prime Minister Netanyahu brushed aside the party’s angry objections to the railroading of the conversion bill through the Law, Constitution and Justice Committee in contravention of various prior agreements.

Netanyahu’s government was sustained by a four-vote margin, with Jewish Home abstaining. The opposition-proposed no-confidence motion was titled “One Year Since the Failed Government Was Formed.”

Jewish Home claims not to be bound by any deals for support of the conversion reforms authored by Movement MK Elazar Stern. The bill proposes to allow chief municipal rabbis to establish conversion courts, which would drastically lower the standards for conversion.

On Wednesday, Israel’s two chief rabbis sent a letter to Netanyahu urging him to call back the bill. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef warned that “if this bill becomes law it will turn the Jewish people in Israel into different camps, creating a situation in which one group will not recognize the conversion process of another group, which could lead to the keeping of independent conversion and family records (sifrei yuchesin).”

Leading rabbinical figures in the national-religious sector have also come out against the reforms, including Rabbi Dov Lior, Rabbi Eliyakim Levanon and Rabbi Haim Druckman.

A senior Jewish Home source said on Tuesday that “if [Justice Minister Tzipi] Livni was promised that her party’s conversion bill would pass in exchange for voting for the three major bills [chareidi conscription, electoral reform and referendum on land concessions], then that was an unfounded promise. We’re sorry someone made a promise to her, but it’s not our problem.”

The source added that the party will vote against the coalition if necessary.

“A conversion bill will not pass without the support of the Religious Services Ministry,” the source said.