August 13, 1998
Binyamin Netanyahu's crises never come singly. One, of prime interest to American Jewry, was put on hold this week. Another, which hogged the headlines for Israelis, ended with blood on the saddle.
Leaders of American Reform and Conservative movements reached an agreement, in principle, with the prime minister and other secular members of his ruling coalition to find, by Sept. 15, a compromise solution to their confrontation over a proposed conversion bill that Diaspora Jews feared would reduce them to second-class status in Israeli eyes.
On the same Tuesday night, Dan Meridor resigned as finance minister after a Cabinet showdown that most Israeli commentators attributed to a clash of personalities rather than its ostensible cause -- exchange rates and the pace of economic liberalization. "Binyamin Netanyahu," as political analyst Hanan Crystal put it, "no longer wanted Dan Meridor in his government."
The conversion bill compromise was based on a position paper presented to the prime minister and his colleagues by a Reform and Conservative delegation.
"I believe this is a great gain for us," said one delegate, Rabbi Richard Hirsch, executive director of the World Union of Progressive Judaism.
Rabbi Uri Regev, the foremost Israeli campaigner for religious pluralism, was "cautiously optimistic." He recognized that the emerging formula still had to overcome the opposition of Netanyahu's religious coalition partners, who control 23 of the 66 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
The three Orthodox parties did not endorse the deal. One of their Knesset members stalked out of a Knesset committee room when the American delegation entered. "Chutzpah," said a fuming Rabbi Moshe Gafni, a member of the haredi United Torah Judaism Party. "They have no place here."
"Potentially," Uri Regev told me, "this is an historic breakthrough." He celebrated the degree of seriousness with which the prime minister and coalition representatives approached the issue as "an unprecedented turn of events." The politicians were evidently shaken by the depth of Diaspora anger on a matter that tends to be consigned to the margins by most Israelis.
Regev, one of the first Israeli-born Reform rabbis, pinned his hopes on two possibilities. Either some of the Orthodox Knesset members would pull back from the brink, recognizing that they would not command a majority if the bill was presented again. Or a combination of secular government and opposition Knesset members would vote it down. However, that does not mean, as some of the delegation expected, that the government would now grant them equal standing in Israel.
Under this week's compromise, the legislation was pulled from the Knesset agenda. In return, the non-Orthodox movements agreed to withdraw their petitions to the Israeli Supreme Court, which precipitated this crisis. The justices had given legislators until June 30 to clarify the law if they so wished.
The tug of war between Netanyahu and the governor of the Bank of Israel, Ya'acov Frenkel, on one side and Dan Meridor on the other ended less amicably. After announcing his resignation, the finance minister told reporters that he was not resigning over economic policy alone. He had, he said, lost faith in the prime minister.
Tension between the two Likud leaders goes back to early 1996, when it looked as if Netanyahu was going to lose the May elections. Meridor was reported to have plotted to replace him as the Likud candidate for prime minister. After winning the elections, Netanyahu was forced, against his will, to include Meridor on his government team.
Although they agreed on the need for liberalization, the prime minister repeatedly humiliated the finance minister over economic tactics. Meridor responded by openly criticizing Netanyahu's handling of the Bar-On affair, the abortive appointment of an underqualified party hack as attorney general in questionable circumstances.
Following his resignation, Meridor blamed Netanyahu's hatchet man, Avigdor Lieberman, for undermining him. Lieberman had, indeed, made no secret of his determination to get rid of his boss's troublesome rival.
"I have served in the government of Menachem Begin," Meridor said. "I served in the government of Yitzhak Shamir. I have never seen anything like this. A chapter has closed, and I cannot continue anymore. As long as I had faith in the prime minister, I remained in the government." Nothing, he contended, had changed since the Bar-On scandal.
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