JERUSALEM, April 1 (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is accusing Reform and Conservative activists in Israel of “misrepresenting” the controversial new conversion bill to their communities in the United States. The prime minister said some of the misrepresentation seemed to be “willful.” He made the remarks to Jewish journalists Tuesday, just hours after the Knesset passed the measure in a 51-32 vote, with seven abstentions, in the first of three Knesset votes known as readings. During the briefing, Netanyahu also discussed the possibility of forming a national unity government, a proposition he said he is seriously considering. Netanyahu said the initiative merely “formalizes” Israel’s non-recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions carried out in Israel. Yet he indicated that the legislative process would be frozen if the two non-Orthodox denominations stopped the petitions they now have before the High Court of Justice seeking recognition of their conversions. Such a freeze would provide “an opportunity for creative solutions,” he said. Netanyahu clearly was making reference to compromise efforts led by Knesset member Alexander Lubotsky of the Third Way party. Inside sources said the final call would be made in New York, where leaders Tuesday said that more time and information would be needed before any decisions could be made. In Israel, however, Reform and Conservative leaders said that while they welcomed efforts to strike a compromise, they would not cease litigation efforts. Netanyahu said it had been the misguided efforts by these movements to use the court in the first place to change the religious “status quo” that had “forced” his governing coalition to back the Orthodox-inspired proposed legislation. Meanwhile, Netanyahu said 99 percent of American Jews seemed to believe wrongly that the new legislation meant that Israel would refuse in the future to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions performed in the United States. Netanyahu said he would never allow such an erosion of the status quo. Israel, he stressed, had always recognized such conversions — and would continue to do so. At the same time, Israel has never recognized Reform and Conservative conversions carried out in Israel. The Knesset now was moving to “formalize” that non-recognition because the non-Orthodox movements had tried, by litigation, to change the status quo. “What I hoped would happen,” he said, “was that someone would have the good sense to remove the litigations.” Netanyahu downplayed the significance of the controversy. He said the fact that non-Orthodox rabbis were not recognized here obviously aggravated many people. But he said it was very far from “the issue of earth-shattering proportions that people represent it to be.” The premier took sharp issue with what he called “fringe elements” in the Orthodox camp in the United States and the United Kingdom who spoke against all contact between their communities and non-Orthodox communities. “I find such talks quite shocking and wholly unacceptable,” he said. Meanwhile, the premier praised the two non-Orthodox denominations as “indispensable parts of the Jewish world and of Judaism, vital” in keeping the fabric of Diaspora Jewry unified. Referring to threats from some quarters to cut off philanthropic funds to Israel or rechannel them, Netanyahu said that “these come from uninformed circles, or, worse, from informed circles who know the truth and still threaten.” As for the question of a national unity government, Netanyahu said he was still weighing whether to form such a coalition. If he decided to go ahead, he noted pointedly, he would do so “in a short time.” On the one hand, he said, a unity government would “formalize” the wide support he believed exists in Israeli public opinion for his peace policies. On the other hand, he said, “We get such support anyway. On Hebron we had more than 80 votes — more than Begin had on Camp David.” A unity government, moreover, “could become a disunity government,” as had happened in the past, he said.
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