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Marriage feud threatens new Israeli government

March 4, 2009

Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu. Reuters PhotoAs if Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t have enough to deal with in forming a new government in Israel, a feud over getting married threatens to further complicate his bid to secure a ruling coaltion.

 The Likud party leader was chosen to form a government after a right-wing majority was elected in a Feb. 10 parliamentary election. Netanyahu has been shuttling between factions, trying to cobble together as broad a coalition as possible that will have a better chance of long-term survival.

Major stumbling blocks so far have been over the future of Palestinian statehood talks and strategies to heal a contracting economy.

But recently, two potentially important coalition partners have been butting heads over the legalisation of civil marriage. Secular nuptials are not recognised by the Jewish state’s religious authority, the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinical Court. And clerics have a monopoly on marrying people in Israel.

Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. Reuters PhotoEli Yisahi, head of the Shas party. Reuters photo.Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party is the third largest, wants  a new law, while the ultra-Orthodox Shas has said it would not join a government that promotes any such
change. Both Lieberman and Shas leader Eli Yishai have been key Netanyahu supporters in his post-election bid for the premiership.

Lieberman’s popularity has steadily increased, mostly thanks to his nationalist proposals that have made headlines worldwide. But his party roots are among the million Israelis who immigrated from the former Soviet Union since the 1980s, many of whom are not considered Jewish under Orthodox law and are therefore designated as “ineligible to wed” in Israel.

A new law on civil unions was one of five issues that Lieberman has conditioned to his joining Netanyahu. Meanwhile, Shas officials have said outright that they “would not compromise on the Halacha”, referring to Jewish law.

Both sides, however, have hinted that a middle ground could be found with the easing of the ban to recognise the civil marriage only of two non-Jews.

The issue have aroused debate outside of political circles with the Chief Rabbinate’s Council convening to discuss “halachic” solutions for non-religious marriage.

While the two parties continue to negotiate, a Netanyahu spokeswoman said the Likud chief is not worried and is confident the sides will reach an agreement.

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