Sa’ar says Netanyahu being ‘extorted’ by ultra-Orthodox on Reform conversions

New Hope leader claims PM ‘afraid of making decisions,’ Haredi parties ‘forced paralysis’ by refusing compromise that could have prevented High Court ruling recognizing converts

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and then-interior minister Gideon Sa'ar, left, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on December 25, 2012. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90/ File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and then-interior minister Gideon Sa'ar, left, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on December 25, 2012. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90/ File)

The leader of the right-wing New Hope party, Gideon Sa’ar, said on Saturday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was being “extorted” by ultra-Orthodox political parties.

Sa’ar was referring to a bombshell High Court decision last week to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions that were performed in Israel.

The decision requires Israel to grant citizenship to those in the country who convert to Judaism under non-Orthodox auspices. It will have little effect on the ground, but dents the ultra-Orthodox-dominated Rabbinate’s control over conversions in the country and sparked an uproar.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, Netanyahu’s longtime political allies, railed against the High Court decision and have said they will only join a coalition that will overturn the ruling via legislation.

Shas and United Torah Judaism previously rejected a compromise plan that would have accepted conversions by some relatively liberal Orthodox rabbis, which later prompted the High Court to intervene after 15 years of stalled efforts.

“The Haredi parties have forced paralysis,” Sa’ar said in a Channel 12 interview when asked about the High Court’s decision.

The New Hope leader said Netanyahu had allowed the decision to come about by caving to Shas and United Torah Judaism and their refusal to accept a compromise on the issue.

“They are trying to bend the hand of the political system. Netanyahu is afraid of making decisions, he’s gripped by fear,” Sa’ar said. “Since the most important thing for Netanyahu is to hold onto power, he must give [them] everything. Therefore, he did not decide on the issue of conversion.”

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)

Hinting that he opposes the decision to legitimize non-Orthodox conversion, Sa’ar said he backs a compromise plan proposed by former minister Moshe Nissim. That plan would have seen an overhaul of the conversion system in Israel, and would have removed it from under the control of the ultra-Orthodox-dominated rabbinate by establishing a new state-run Orthodox authority instead.

Sa’ar added that he supports a compromise that would grant some degree of recognition to Jewish “streams in the United States” and “give every community what it deserves.”

Since the High Court ruling, Shas and United Torah Judaism have both released ads attacking Reform Jews.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders do not view the Reform movement as an authentic form of Judaism and do not recognize Reform rabbis.

Israel is holding its fourth election in two years on March 23. Netanyahu will need the support of both ultra-Orthodox parties in order to have a chance of forming a coalition.

Sa’ar’s New Hope party, Naftali Bennett’s Yamina, and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu and Netanyahu’s Likud are all battling for votes on the right, along with the smaller, further right Religious Zionism faction headed by Bezalel Smotrich.

Sa’ar broke with Likud to form New Hope late last year. A fierce critic of Netanyahu, he has repeatedly pitched himself as a right-wing replacement for the premier. He has vowed not to sit in a coalition under Netanyahu, unlike his rival Bennett, who has not ruled out cooperating with the premier, or his opponents.

Neither the pro- or anti-Netanyahu camps have a clear path to a majority, according to recent polling.

National elections were called after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline.

The election, like the previous three votes, is largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s rule amid his ongoing trial on corruption charges, as well as his government’s varied success battling the pandemic.

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