Likud Mk Miki Zohar reportedly suggested to a far-right religious nationalist party that it drop out of the running in upcoming elections in exchange for a future Likud-led government backing moves to abolish the mixed-gender prayer area at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Zohar met recently with leaders of the Noam party at their headquarters in the capital, where he also offered that, in return for them ending their campaign, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud party would block proposed reforms in the state-controlled system for conversion to Judaism, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported Thursday.
Netanyahu and Likud have been pressuring smaller right-wing parties to either merge or pull out of the September 17 elections to prevent votes being “wasted” on them if they do not pass the threshold for entry into the Knesset. Polls have shown that neither a right- or a left-wing bloc will have a clear path to forming a majority in the 120-seat Knesset and the election results are expected to be close.
In response to the newspaper report, Likud emphatically denied that any such offer to Noam was even under consideration and insisted it never would be.
The mixed-gender plaza at the Western Wall, along with Orthodox control over state-recognized conversion, has in the past driven a wedge between the government and Jewish communities abroad, among whom large numbers support the need for the plaza as a site for non-Orthodox prayer services as well as a smoother path to conversion to Judaism. Ultra-Orthodox parties oppose both the pluralistic prayer area and changes to the conversion system.
Zohar arrived at the meeting, held Tuesday night, with representatives of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, which is considered closest to the ideology of Noam’s supporters, the report said.
The MK’s offer was said to include Likud and Netanyahu’s support for closing the prayer plaza and for stopping the so-called Nissim plan for reforming the conversion process, as well as a promise to appoint a Noam member to a senior position, though not as a minister.
UTJ would be responsible for ensuring that the offered changes are advanced by the next government, according to the report.
Noam rejected the offer and the meeting ended without any progress, although the two sides reportedly agreed to remain in contact as the September 17 election approaches.
Zohar told Yedioth it was his idea to call the meeting but that he had obtained Netanyahu’s approval for it.
The Noam representatives were “very stubborn,” he said, warning that they would forever have “a black mark against them” if they caused Likud to lose by siphong votes to a futile campaign for Knesset.
“They are endangering the right-wing rule,” Zohar warned.
Likud issued a statement denying that the initiative had anything to do with the party or that the offers made were even under consideration.
“There will be no change in conversion and no one will close the southern Western Wall,” the party said. “No offer was made or will be made on behalf of Likud to Noam. Votes must not be wasted on parties that don’t pass the threshold.”
In a statement. the Noam party criticized UTJ politicians over their past performance in the Knesset as showing “that at the moment of truth there is no one who can be relied on,” and vowed to continue its election campaign.
The far-right conservative religious party has polled far below any chance of passing the 3.25 percent vote threshold for entering the Knesset. It has made combating LGBT acceptance the focus of its fledgling campaign, along with opposing egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. It has funded provocative billboards and video ads with the slogan “Israel chooses to be normal,” and claims the LGBT community has “forced its agenda” on the rest of Israeli society.
In 2016 the government and non-Orthodox Jewish leaders reached an agreement to refurbish a pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall but Netanyahu later froze the plan at the behest of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.
Netanyahu’s decision was met with outrage from a large swath of Diaspora Jewry, underlining a growing rift between Israel and the US Jewish community.
Moshe Nissim, a former justice, finance, and industry minister, in 2018 presented a proposal for a uniform conversion process under the auspices of a new state-authorized Orthodox body. The eventual proposal, which Nissim was asked to prepare by Netanyahu, sought not to change Orthodox control over the state’s official conversion apparatus, but to remove the matter from the Chief Rabbinate’s oversight.
The Nissim plan, however, was immediately dismissed by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, and United Torah Judaism’s MK Moshe Gafni, who said they would block the proposed reforms, holding up coalition agreements that gave them a veto over religious and state issues.
Raoul Wootliff and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.