Ambassador warns Netanyahu of conversion bill rift

The Jewish community will not be eager to defend Israel if it believes that Jerusalem "doesn't want us," Ben-Elissar wrote.

The government, meanwhile, has been making a mammoth effort to convince the Conservative and Reform movements to delay their High Court petitions on the conversion bill as well as the issue of representation on religious councils. That, in turn, would allow the government to delay acting on them until after Nov. 16, when Netanyahu is scheduled to address the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations in the United States.

Tuesday night, Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman, the chairman of the committee seeking a compromise on the issues, held a marathon telephone conference with Reform and Conservative leaders here and abroad. He said the Orthodox establishment has eased its position and cited as examples statements by Rabbi David Grossman of Migdal Ha'emek and Haifa Chief Rabbi She'ar-Yashuv Cohen. Those statements appeared to be more tolerant toward the non-Orthodox movements.

The conversion bill stipulates that only the Chief Rabbinate can validate conversions performed in Israel, thus excluding conversions performed locally by Reform and Conservative rabbis. The religious council legislation, meanwhile, excludes Reform and Conservative representatives from local religious councils.

Although the conversion issue is more emotional, the religious council issue is more pressing, because on Sunday the High Court is due to deliberate on a petition asking it to seat Conservative and Reform representatives on the religious councils of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Kiryat Tivon.

The court has already ruled that a Reform Jew, representing Meretz, must be allowed to take her seat on the Netanya religious council.

Following the refusal of the chief rabbis and the religious parties to consider the Ne'eman Committee's guidelines on the conversion issue, Ne'eman and the Prime Minister's Office had been searching for an authoritative Orthodox figure who could make a conciliatory gesture toward the non-Orthodox.

The Conservative and Reform, for their part, feel that they have already made great concessions by agreeing to the guidelines, which include two main features.

The first feature is a central conversion institute with candidates from all religious streams but with the final conversion carried out by an Orthodox rabbinical court.

The second dictate is that Conservative and Reform rabbis are allowed to perform marriages, but only in the presence of two official supervisors/witnesses from the local rabbinate.

In both cases, the non-Orthodox would thus be relinquishing their claims to rabbinical authority.

"We appreciate [Ne'eman's] good will, but we have to have something concrete," said Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center.

The Labor Party has committed to vote against the conversion bill, along with some coalition rebels from the Third Way, Yisrael Ba'aliya and Tsomet. And therefore, the Reform and Conservative feel they have at least a chance of defeating it. However, since the bill is sponsored by the government, its supporters can bring it up repeatedly.

There has yet to be a Knesset showdown on the religious councils, but the non-Orthodox point out that even many in the Orthodox camp believe they are corrupt and have outlived their usefulness.

Knesset member Alex Lubotzky (Third Way), who has been working for a solution, said the haredim are unlikely to accept the Ne'eman Committee's compromise proposals.

"Everybody is so caught up in matters of prestige and recognition that they tend to forget what the issues are," he said. "The haredim are prepared to shoot themselves in the foot rather than let the non-Orthodox have any candy."

Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg also criticized the haredi parties and National Religious Party for their stand on the conversion bill.

"He who passes a law that alienates 65 percent of the Jewish people will create a situation in which Israel will no longer be the homeland of the Jews, as envisioned by the Zionist movement. Therefore, the bill is anti-Zionist," Burg said.