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Premier criticizes non- Orthodox for seeking to change status quo

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 by 51-32, 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. The bill would make all conversions conducted in Israel subject to confirmation by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. It normally would go next to the committee stage, but a compromise under discussion may alter the usual legislative practice. Secular coalition parties had threatened to torpedo the bill by opposing the vote or abstaining — prompting Michael Eitan, coalition chairman of the Likud Party, to propose a compromise to ensure its passage. All the coalition parties then backed the measure after Eitan signed a letter pledging a suspension of further steps in the legislative process, pending efforts to reach an accord with representatives of non-Orthodox denominations. It is now predicated upon the non-Orthodox denominations’ agreement to freeze legal actions currently before the High Court of Justice, and to desist from further such legal actions while negotiations are under way. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said Tuesday that the Knesset action “upset us greatly.” At the same time, he said, it was too early to render judgment on the compromise effort. “We’re trying to determine how serious the compromise is,” he said.
Indications exist that the compromise offers “some hope,” he said, but there is not yet enough information to know whether it is a genuine effort to resolve the dilemma or merely a delay. Rabbi Einat Ramon, spokeswoman for the Conservative/Masorti movement in Israel, said, “We are very suspicious.” “If a serious negotiation goes on and something worthwhile is offered, we will consider it.” Netanyahu indicated in his meeting with reporters 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. 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. Ramon said that “it is unacceptable” for the Reform and Conservative movements to withdraw their court cases in return for dropping the conversion bill because that would not achieve the movements’ objectives. “We need to see progress in registering our converts and recognizing liberal, non-Orthodox movements in Israel,” she said. Uri Regev, director of the Reform Israel Religious Action Center, said that while his movement would gladly discuss a compromise, they still intend to submit more petitions to the High Court of Justice on behalf of families who adopted and converted their children overseas. Those conversions have not yet been registered by the Interior Ministry, said Regev. 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. The premier said the Knesset was moving to “formalize” the historical non-recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions carried out in Israel 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.” Orthodox legislators, some of whom had threatened to leave the coalition if the bill was not passed on its first reading, also maintain that it will not change the status quo. “There is nothing new here,” said Transportation Minister Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party. “It is only setting into law an existing situation.” Meanwhile, Netanyahu said 99 percent of American Jews seemed to believe 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. 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.” Netanyahu deftly skirted the issue of conversion abroad of Israeli nationals and residents. The Orthodox parties intend to introduce new wording at the committee stage of the conversion bill. They plan to shut off this loophole through which the two non-Orthodox movements have been feeding a slender stream of their converts over recent months. The premier said he did not accept the Orthodox argument in this case. He also said he was still weighing the question of whether to form a government of national unity. If he decided to go ahead, he noted pointedly, he would do so “in a short time.” This was in response to a specific reference to June 3, the date of the Labor Party leadership election. 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, “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.