This could be the end of Netanyahu's coalition

Lobbying Bibi: Lieberman

Lobbying Bibi: Lieberman

The press was invited on Wednesday afternoon to cover a meeting between Binyamin Netanyahu and IDF soldiers undergoing a military conversion course. An hour before the reception, the Prime Minister's Office changed its mind: the event would be closed to the media.

Mr Netanyahu and his party may have supported the law affirming the army's conversions but the prime minister's advisers thought it unwise to rub this in the face of his coalition.

In five years, the Nativ project, run jointly by the IDF and the Jewish Agency, has completed the conversion of over 5,000 soldiers, mainly from families that emigrated from the former Soviet Union. Some 300,000 Israeli citizens who came from the FSU are not recognised by the Orthodox rabbinate as Jews, and therefore excluded from being married to or buried with other Jewish citizens. Few of these immigrants are willing to conform to the stringent requirements of the civilian rabbinic conversion courts, but in the closed environment of army service, commanders and rabbis have succeeded in overcoming many of the religious and social obstacles.

It was a matter of time before the more radical elements in the Chief Rabbinate, egged on by strictly Orthodox rabbis, questioned this arrangement and the validity of the conversions. Mr Netanyahu tried to arrange a behind-the-scenes agreement on a committee that would facilitate joint supervision of the military conversion process, but when this fell through, he had a coalition crisis on his hands.

The Likud government stands on three shaky legs. Leftist Labour, rightist-"Russian" Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, and rightist-Orthodox Shas. These are three parties of similar size and, if one were to drop out, Mr Netanyahu would be left with a tiny majority.

The law, giving equal status to military conversions, was a demand that he could not publicly refuse, but it is anathema to Shas and the smaller Charedi party, United Torah Judaism, which sees it as an erosion of their rabbis' control of the gateway to the Jewish people. Now he will have to find a way to placate them.

    Last updated: 4:30pm, May 31 2011