Panel on conversion eyes end to deadlock

JERUSALEM — A committee charged with finding a way to resolve a crisis over conversions in Israel will make another bid to break its deadlock.

The committee failed to come up with a recommended solution by last Friday's deadline.

But instead of disbanding, the committee was scheduled to convene again yesterday to discuss whether to extend the deadline.

Both Orthodox and non-Orthodox committee members stressed in interviews that the negotiations are not dead.

"The fact that we are continuing to meet means there's hope," said Orthodox Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitz.

One of the Orthodox members, Rabbi Simcha Meron, tendered his resignation last week, according to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz.

Although Meron has not officially retracted his resignation, he does plan to attend this week's meeting, sources close to the committee said.

The committee, headed by Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman, was created by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to forge a path acceptable to the three major Jewish streams to avert the passage of controversial pending legislation.

That legislation would codify the Orthodox monopoly over conversions performed in Israel.

The committee, which includes one Conservative, one Reform and five Orthodox representatives, had been meeting daily since June 30 in an effort to submit its recommendations by the Aug. 15 deadline.

It was expected that the governing coalition would act on the recommendations by Sept. 5.

Although discussions on the question of how to register non-Orthodox converts in Israel were reportedly going well in recent weeks, the negotiations began to break down last week, according to the sources.

Bobby Brown, the prime minister's adviser on Diaspora affairs, indicated that the committee's negotiations began to break down after the High Court of Justice ordered the appointment of a Reform woman to the Netanya religious council.

That decision prompted protests from Israel's Orthodox establishment.

Religious tensions were further exacerbated by an incident last week at the Western Wall during Tisha B'Av, when police forcibly removed a group of Conservative men and women who were praying together at the edge of the plaza.

Ultra-religious Orthodox men, who find egalitarian prayer groups offensive, tried to drown out the prayers of the 200 Conservative worshippers before police intervened.

"Some of the acts that took place last week have not helped us create the mood in the country needed to move forward on a solution," Brown said.

"However, I still believe we can lower temperatures and get people to talk rationally. I think the issues can be solved, but we need more time."

Despite religious tension in the country, some committee members remained hopeful that a recommended solution could still be developed for the government to consider.

"Within the committee there is a great deal of good will," said Rabinovitz. "This is a very complex matter. The committee is trying to solve a problem that has been building up for many years."

Said Rabbi Reuven Hammer, the Conservative representative, "There's a general feeling in the committee of wanting to extend [the negotiations], but the exact details have yet to be worked out."

The agreement to establish the committee came after more than two months of talks between coalition representatives and Reform and Conservative leaders, including last-minute marathon talks involving Netanyahu.

As part of the compromise, the coalition agreed to suspend legislative work on the bill codifying the Orthodox conversion monopoly. The Reform and Conservative movements agreed to suspend litigation pending before Israel's High Court of Justice.