Thursday, September 3, 2015

How Arye Deri Might Force the Chief Rabbinate to Recognize Rav Rabinovitch's Conversions

My favorite political writer in Israel, Zev Kam, floated a fascinating theory in last week's Mekor Rishon suggesting that the individual who might be most responsible for the official acceptance of the conversions performed by the new conversion Beit Din of Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch might be none other than Arye Machlouf Deri, head of Shas.

Deri? you ask. He's the head of a Hareidi party, and a devoted follow of Rav Ovadia Yosef zt"l. Rav Ovadya's son, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Rav Yitzchak Yosef, recently criticized the Beit Din by asserting that,
"They want to convert children who will eat pork and violate the Shabbat. This represents a falsification of the words of Torah, even according to Rav Kook and Rav Yisraeli. These conversions are forbidden." 
[A short digression on Rav Yosef's comments: On the first point there is no debate. The Beit Din does not require that the children commit to an Orthodox lifestyle. On the second point, Rav Rabinovitch doesn't need my defense. Yet, I note with interest Rav Yosef's choice of words about the conversions themselves. He could have said that they are illegitimate and will never be recognized. He did not say that. He said, הגיורים האלו אסורים, meaning that in his mind, it is forbidden for a rabbi to perform such a conversion. What would the halachic status of a person converted by a recognized rabbi? Rav Yosef did not answer that question. End digression.]

Yes, Deri.

How would Deri coerce the Chief Rabbinate to accept and legitimate these conversions? He'd do it, unintentionally, through the magical world of Israeli politics. This is because while Deri himself would never suggest accepting these conversions, given the proper incentive, Prime Minister Netanyahu would. Why in the world would Bibi want to get himself involved in this fight? Because he needs a gas deal, and he needs it sooner rather than later.

The Gas Deal
Jews around the world, and especially in Israel, rejoiced when we learned of the discovery of huge natural gas reserves in Israeli waters in the Mediterranean Sea. The first field, Tamar, is estimated to have 7.9 trillion cubic feet of gas. That's a lot. Discovered in 2009, the field came online and began producing gas in 2013. Just to get a sense of the crazy Israeli politics involved: Tamar is directly west of Haifa, but due to lawsuits and holdups in the Supreme Court, it turned out to be easier to just pipe the gas under the sea all the way to Ashkelon, one hundred miles to the south. (And if you drive north today on Road 6, you'll see crews laying pipeline to carry natural gas north from Ashkelon to the utility plants in the north. Crazy.)

Tamar turned out to be an appetizer for the main meal, as Noble Energy announced that it discovered another field they called Leviathon, which is estimated to contain 16 trillion cubic feet of gas (more that a lot; much more). Yet, before the company can begin producing gas, the government must sign off on the agreement that it made with the company to buy the gas. This turns out to be incredibly complicated. The general sense that I get is that right-wing parties want to sign the deal, while left-wing parties think that the government should hold off and demand a better deal from the fatcat tycoons who are getting filthy rich by selling gas that belongs to the Israeli public. Both are probably right. It's very confusing, which is why you're probably not even reading this paragraph, and skipped to the next heading when you read the words, "The Gas Deal"

Deri's Role
How does Deri fit into all of this? Well it turns out that in order to trigger the deal already approved by the Cabinet, it must be certified by the government's Antitrust Commissioner, ensuring that contracts to do not give monopolistic rights to specific companies. (This deal does seem to have all the markings of a monopoly). Yet, like so many Israeli laws, this one also has a loophole. Article 52 of the Antitrust law states that in cases of national security or foreign policy concerns, the Economy Minister (Deri) could sign a waiver that would circumvent the antitrust commissioner's objections. In other words, Bibi had a "Get out of jail free" card for his gas deal: Arye Deri. All Deri had to do was sign the papers, the gas deal would have gone through, the companies would have gotten rich, and the Israeli public would have enjoyed a windfall from the taxes on that gas (albeit less than they should get, but who's asking?)

Deri refused to sign the deal. Not once, but twice. It's clear that if Bibi thought for a moment that Deri wouldn't sign off, he never, ever, ever would have made Deri the Economy Minister. Never. But that's water under the bridge. And, on top of it all, the current Antitrust commissioner just resigned, and Deri has to find someone else to take the job. That person will then need to reexamine the whole agreement, create a commission to conduct an inquiry - a huge tumult. It will take months, if not years for this gas deal to go through. And, Egypt just found an even bigger gas field in its waters.

Bibi wants this gas deal. Badly.

How do you get approval for the deal if you can't get Deri - who you appointed as your Economy Minister - in your coalition, to sign the papers? Well, you can bring it to the Knesset for a vote, and approve it officially, without the need for loopholes.

There's only one problem: Bibi's coalition is 61 out of 120 seats - razor thin - and he'll never get the vote passed with that margin. He needs breathing room, and there's only one natural place for him to turn: Avigdor Lieberman.

The Lieberman Factor
Lieberman surprised the political pundits when he announced that his Yisrael Beiteinu party would not be joining the government this year. He can change his mind at any time, given the proper incentive. In fact, it has been widely assumed that he would eventually join the government, as Bibi himself never actually filled the post of Foreign Minister (keeping it for himself, and placing Tzipi Hotoveli as Assistant Foreign Minister) which he seems to be saving for Lieberman. What might Lieberman want in order to enter the government? I assume that he'll want a whole host of things, but included in the list might very well be the issue of conversions.

Lieberman represents an almost exclusive constituency from the former Soviet Union, and for them, the issue of conversions really is important, no so much because they want to convert, but more because those who are not halachically Jewish can't marry legally in Israel, and feel like second-class citizens. This is a symbolic issue that's very important to Lieberman's community, even if practically it won't make that much of a difference.

Last month, Lieberman held a very public meeting with Tzohar Chairman Rav David Stav in order to discuss ways to promote the acceptance of the conversions promoted by the new Beit Din. A Hareidi website reported that,
"Lieberman and Rav Stav agreed that the Yirsrael Beiteinu party will work with the relevant parties in the government and the Chief Rabbinate, in order to find a way to allow these alternative Batei Din to operate, with official recognition for the conversions performed."
Lieberman further threatened that if the conversions were not recognized, his party would once again introduce a new "Tzohar Law" legislating the rights and recognition of the new conversion courts. These threats and any new legislation, only have a hope of passing if Lieberman joins the government and helps pass the gas deal.

So, in the end, who might have forced Bibi to turn to Avigdor Lieberman to pass his gas deal, who in turn will force the Chief Rabbinate to accept Rav Rabinovitch's conversion court? That's right: none other than Arye Deri.

Maran would be appalled.