Gantz and Liberman said to agree on civil marriage, other religion reforms
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Gantz and Liberman said to agree on civil marriage, other religion reforms

Leaked document shows far-reaching changes Blue and White willing to support to entice Yisrael Beytenu, as clock winds down on coalition bid

Illustrative: A Jewish couple getting married. (Justin Oberman/Creative Commons)
Illustrative: A Jewish couple getting married. (Justin Oberman/Creative Commons)

A Blue and White-led government would enact sweeping religion and state reforms, including easing the state-recognized process of converting to Judaism and legalizing civil marriages, according to a leaked document published Monday.

The publication of the document, an agreement between centrist Blue and White and the secularist Yisrael Beytenu party, comes as coalition negotiations have reached a fever pitch, with only days to go before a deadline for Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to form a governing coalition.

A document leaked Monday that purported to be an agreement between Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu on religious issues showed the strong liberal leanings of a future Gantz government.

The agreement, published by Channel 12, showed the two parties had agreed on easing state-recognized conversion to Judaism, establishing an egalitarian section at the Western Wall, instituting civil marriage outside the rabbinate, and letting local municipalities decide for themselves whether to allow public transportation and commerce on Shabbat, among other items.

While some of the items dovetail with Blue and White’s published platforms, other issues show the heavy influence of Yisrael Beytenu, whose leader Avigdor Liberman ran on a secularist platform of promising to do away with ultra-Orthodox hegemony of many aspects of daily life in Israel that have chafed the party’s base of mostly Russian-speaking immigrants and their descendants.

According to Channel 12, the agreement with Blue and White would see all municipal rabbis able to conduct conversions, and would let prospective converts turn to any state-recognized rabbi they wish — a key demand of the Russian-speaking community, where many seek conversion to Judaism but are unwilling to adopt the ultra-Orthodox observance demanded by some parts of the Israeli rabbinate.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (left) and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman shake hands ahead of a meeting on October 28, 2019 (courtesy)

The agreement also calls for the legislation of a civil marriage law that would codify informal common-law rules and give more Israelis the legal ability to marry anyone they wish, irrespective of their religious background. Israel’s current system, inherited from the Ottoman Empire, allows Israelis to marry only in state-run religious establishments according to religious law.

While a large percentage of Israelis simply avoid the state marriage bureaucracy and opt for common-law marriage instead, it can leave them vulnerable in cases of divorce or custody battles to the whims of those religious institutions down the road. The new reform would allow couples who wish to avoid religious institutions to conduct their entire marriage process, including registration, divorce and any post-divorce legal wrangling, in civil courts under secular law.

The agreement would also cancel the Supermarkets Law, passed in the 20th Knesset at the behest of Shas and United Torah Judaism, that limits municipalities’ right to let businesses operate on Shabbat.

It also specifies that local councils will be able to run bus services on Shabbat, and to charge for rides — both steps opposed by Haredi parties.

Negotiators for Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu last met on Sunday, and came away from the meeting announcing “significant progress.”

On Monday afternoon, Liberman again insisted he sought a unity government that included both Likud and Blue and White.

Speaking in the Knesset, the Yisrael Beytenu leader said, “If by noon on Wednesday we have not reached an agreement, then as far as I am concerned we have failed [at forming a unity government] and each of us will have to do some soul searching.”

With less than three days to go before Gantz’s 28-day mandate to form a government expires, both Blue and White and Likud are working hard to entice the eight-seat Yisrael Beytenu faction to their side.

Liberman promised before the September 17 vote that he would only back a unity government made up of both parties, but has since backed away and indicated he may back whatever party meets his demands as a way of avoiding a third consecutive vote after nearly a year of political chaos.

Yisrael Beytenu’s eight seats would be enough to give Netanyahu and his right-wing and ultra-Orthodox allies a 63-seat coalition, the parliamentary majority in the 120-seat Knesset that he needs to become prime minister. But Liberman has brawled with the ultra-Orthodox Shas and UTJ parties, who insist on maintaining a “status quo” on religion and state issues.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is hosted by Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party (left), at a meal to celebrate the birth of Litzman’s grandson, June 18, 2017. (Shlomi Cohen/FLASH90)

Meanwhile, Blue and White would need the support of Yisrael Beytenu and other parties, some of whom are opposed to Liberman’s far-right stances on diplomatic and military issues, to form a government. The party has been said to be exploring the idea of a minority government supported from the outside by the Joint List of Arab-led parties, though Liberman’s anti-Arab rhetoric could make that a tough sell.

Earlier Monday, Likud and its Haredi allies said they were exploring ways to compromise on religious issues in order to enable Liberman to join the rightist-religious coalition and end the six-month impasse, before the country goes to a third election in a year.

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