October 23, 1997
A key element in Labor Party leader Ehud Barak's strategy tobecome prime minister is to win support from Orthodox andultra-Orthodox (haredi) voters, who backed Binyamin Netanyahuoverwhelmingly in the last election. Now Barak is faced with adilemma: The price of wooing Orthodox votes is apparently his supportfor the Conversion Law, which is fast approaching decision time inthe Knesset.
When the bill -- which would enshrine in law the Orthodox monopolyover conversions performed in Israel -- came up for a preliminaryKnesset vote in April, Barak finessed the issue. The Labor Partyannounced that it would oppose the law. But when the Knesset votetook place, about three-quarters of the Labor Knesset faction,including Barak himself, were conveniently absent from the floor, andthe bill won preliminary approval by a lopsided margin.
This week, once again, Labor announced its opposition to theConversion Law. Once again, no one is taking the announcement asLabor's final word on the issue, especially in light of the bracingmessage Barak received from leaders of Shas, Israel's largestreligious party.
Last Friday, Barak met with Shas' spiritual leader, Rabbi OvadiaYosef; Yosef's son, David, a leading Jerusalem rabbi; and Shas'Knesset leader, Arye Deri. Following the meeting, Barak joined PrimeMinister Binyamin Netanyahu in calling on the Reform and Conservativemovements to delay their upcoming Supreme Court challenges of theOrthodox religious monopoly -- all in the name of "Jewish unity."Reform and Conservative leaders, however, rejected the appeal, sayingthe Orthodox establishment had dismissed every attempt at compromise.
At the meeting with Shas, Barak was informed that the ConversionLaw was a critical issue for them. "If Labor votes against us, theyhave no business trying to get us to join a coalition with them --not in this world or in the world to come," one Shas official said.
The message was underscored at a Shas rally two nights later.Rabbi Ovadia Yosef called for a