JERUSALEM, Israel - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would not support a divisive conversion bill submitted by the Yisrael Beiteinu party.
The bill gives the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate legal authority over conversions, particularly those performed in Israel. Netanyahu opposes the legislation because it could widen the gap between Jews in Israel and abroad.
The bill has the potential to "tear apart the Jewish people," Netanyahu told ministers at Sunday's cabinet meeting.
"I will not lend my hand to any legislation that will cause a split in the Jewish people," the prime minister said. "Efforts will be made to remove the bill by consensus, but if not, I will ask Likud and other members of the coalition to oppose it," he said.
Netanyahu's remarks sparked a potential coalition crisis, fueled by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shomo Amar, who advised haredi parties to bolt the coalition if the legislation failed to pass.
Amar said despite his contention that "there will be a serious crisis in Israel" if the conversion bill fails to pass, he had no intention of getting involved in politics.
During a radio interview Sunday morning, the chief rabbi said the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties should quit the coalition if the bill didn't pass.
"If they [Shas and United Torah Judaism] listened to me, they'd stand up to Netanyahu as one and say, 'Either pass the conversion law or we're leaving,'" Amar told Kol Barama radio.
The bill, submitted by Yisrael Beitenu MK David Rotem, could create havoc for immigrants whose conversion to Judaism abroad didn't meet ultra-Orthodox criteria. It could potentially exclude some converts from being eligible for aliyah (immigration to Israel) under the Law of Return.
Rotem said his bill only pertains to conversions in Israel, not abroad.
"This law has nothing to do with American Jews. It does not deal with conversions abroad at all," Rotem said.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said his party would not leave the coalition, despite reports in the Israeli media.
"I hear that nowadays it's in style to criticize the media," Lieberman told reporters on Monday morning. "I have never seen so much nonsense from the analysts," he said.
Netanyahu expressed his willingness to resolve other disagreements with Lieberman, including budget cuts and the appointment of Meron Reuben as interim UN ambassador.
"Yisrael Beiteinu is our central partner and is important to the government," Netanyahu said.
Last week, a group of U.S. senators signed a letter to Israel's ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren expressing concerns over the legislation.
"There's an overwhelming feeling among Jewish members of Congress and Jewish senators that the conversion bill is offensive to them and is exclusionary in that it disenfranchises and disrespects 85 percent of Jews in the U.S.," said Stuart Weinblatt, head of the Israel advocacy office of the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly.