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Knesset Defeats Conversion, ‘who is a Jew?’ Amendments, Pardon Bill; Likud-shas Accord on Thin Ice

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The Knesset Wednesday defeated two controversial bills which would have given the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate exclusive right to approve conversions performed abroad.

A measure introduced by the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party would have amended religious regulations dating from the British Mandate in Palestine by requiring that all converts to Judaism procure the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s endorsement in order to be fully recognized as Jews in Israel.

Despite support from Premier Yitzhak Shamir, it was defeated by a vote of 60-56 with four MKs absent.

A proposed amendment to the Law of Return, sponsored by the National Religious Party, would have had the same effect — invalidating conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis in cases of Jews-by-choice seeking Israeli citizenship as Jews.

It was defeated 62-53 with two abstentions and three absences. This bill has been defeated each of the many times it has been brought before the Knesset in past years.

Shamir had pledged to the Shas Party two months ago that Likud would “do all in its power” to gain passage of the Shas measure. He made no secret that this was to be in exchange for Shas support of Likud efforts to prevent the Labor Party from dissolving the Knesset and calling early elections.

ALLIANCE SHAKEN

Defeat of the Shas measure threatens to undo the Shas-Likud alliance, and there were recriminations on both sides. Shas leaders said Likud’s “check has bounced.” Haim Kaufman, chairman of the Likud Knesset faction, insisted his party had fulfilled its pledge to try to pass the amendment and saw no reason why the Orthodox faction should withdraw its support of Likud.

Kaufman pointed to the narrow margin of defeat as proof that the Likud Knesset whips “did their job.” He blamed Likud-Liberal MK Sarah Doron, who crossed party lines to vote against the bill. But other Likud figures noted the deliberate absence of Likud-Herut MK Eliahu Ben-Elissar and the defection of Likud allies such as Rafael Eitan of the opposition Tehiya Party, who voted against the measure, and Ometz MK Yigael Hurwitz, who was absent.

Supporters of the bill also claimed it was Arab MKs who invariably voted against Orthodox-inspired laws dealing with conversions.

THE U.S. JEWISH FACTOR

But the main factor thwarting the religious-rightwing bloc may have been the fierce opposition of American Jewish leaders who made it clear that Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry was at stake. Only hours before the voting, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith leadership sent a message to the government and Knesset. It urged that “The government of Israel should not underestimate the extent of opposition to these bills among American Jews” and warned that “passage would have a serious impact on American efforts to help Israel.”

Ruth Popkin, president of Hadassah, urged rejection of the bills in a message to Shamir which noted that she spoke “as head of the largest Zionist organization” in the U.S.

Robert Asher of Chicago, chairman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a Washington-based pro-Israel lobby, warned of the consequences in an Israel Radio interview Wednesday.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the Labor Party leader, said Tuesday that if the religious measures were passed, Labor would leave the unity coalition government. He said the legislation “endangers the unity of the Jewish people.”

PARDONS REJECTED

The Knesset also defeated, by an overwhelming 69-40 majority, a motion sponsored by the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel and Poale Agudat Israel parties to grant immediate pardons to seven members of a Jewish terrorist underground still serving prison sentences for violent crimes against Arabs in the West Bank.

Shamir supported the measure, but it was opposed on the Knesset floor by Likud Justice Minister Avraham Sharir, who demanded that it be withdrawn from the agenda. He called it an unworthy legislative precedent.

Other Likud Ministers, including David Levy and Moshe Arens, absented themselves from the chamber. Two Likud MKs who are close to Shamir, Ehud Olmert and Dan Meridor, voted against the pardon bill.

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