Labors Barak vows to vote down Orthodox bills

Hearing what many had been waiting for at a gathering dominated by this issue, delegates gave an audibly warmer reception to the retired general than the one they gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the previous evening.

Barak, in a 30-minute address, pledged to support "a determined effort to compromise," referring to the Ne'eman Committee, which is seeking a solution that would avert legislation on religious issues.

But if the Ne'eman Committee fails, "we will raise our hands against" the religious legislation, the Labor Party leader said to sustained applause. Observers, especially Reform and Conservative leaders who had sought such a declaration, hailed his remarks as his first unequivocal statement against the legislation.

"It took a degree of courage" to state his position as he did, said Rabbi Uri Regev, head of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center in Israel.

Barak's remarks came one day after Netanyahu skirted specifics on the issue when he came before the assembly. Instead, Netanyahu deferred to his finance minister, Ya'acov Ne'eman, whom the premier asked to address the crowd. Ne'eman pleaded for patience as his committee seeks to find a solution.

But what played well to the delegates was sure to cause Barak political problems at home.

In the world of Israeli politics, Barak, if elected, would likely need the support of the religious parties in a future coalition agreement. In fact, Barak sat down last week to discuss future alliances with the leader of the ultra-religious Shas Party.

As a result, some delegates questioned whether Barak would uphold his promise if and when another vote on the conversion legislation comes to the Knesset floor. Others suggested that it was easy for the head of the opposition party to say he would oppose the legislation.

But Barak, who had absented himself from the bill's first reading, stood firm.

"It's not politics when it comes to dealing with the very unity of the Jewish people," he said in a brief interview after his speech.

And when asked in a news conference if he would oppose the legislation even if the Reform and Conservative movements face blame for a breakdown in the Ne'eman process, Barak said he couldn't be "clearer" in his opposition.

In addition, Barak said he would "basically" impose party discipline, requiring all the members of his Labor Party to vote against the legislation, except for Orthodox and Arab members of the party if it went against their beliefs.

As Barak was scoring points with delegates, Ne'eman admonished against prejudging the process. "We have no choice but to find a solution," said the Cabinet minister, who noted that his presence at the G.A. during a time of intense budget negotiations in Israel reflected the importance of the issue.

"The future of the Jewish people depends on the consent and successful conclusion of this committee," he said. "History will judge us all by how we respond to this challenge and responsibility."