JERUSALEM, JULY 8 -- Israel's parliament today narrowly defeated two pieces of legislation that would have effectively barred non-Orthodox converts to Judaism from Israeli citizenship and could have led to a major rift between Israel and world Jewry, most of which does not belong to Judaism's Orthodox wing.
The parliament also defeated a bill to grant amnesty to seven Jewish settlers convicted of terrorist attacks on Arabs in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The defeat of the conversion measures could jeopardize the future of Israel's coalition government because Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir failed to deliver on his pledge of support to the country's small but influential ultraorthodox political parties. Shamir voted for the bills, but defections from his Likud political bloc helped defeat them.
It was a big victory for mainstream American Jewish organizations -- including the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee -- which have been united against the bills for years and which lobbied hard for their defeat.
Yet the defeat of the measures was also a victory of sorts for Shamir, who had privately assured the American organizations that the bills would not pass. The best possible outcome, according to Shamir's aides, was that the bills were defeated but by a narrow enough margin so that the prime minister could claim to the religious parties to have done his utmost on their behalf.
The first bill would have required that only those Jews converted under the Halakha, traditional Jewish law, be eligible for automatic entry and citizenship to Israel. It was defeated by 62 to 53.
The second bill, which would have accomplished the same goal by amending the law on conversions to give Israel's Orthodox rabbinate total authority over converts, was defeated by 60 to 56.
Three Likud legislators, including Ehud Olmert, one of Shamir's closest supporters, voted against the measures, while two others abstained and another was absent. Had Shamir succeeded in enforcing party discipline, the measures would have passed the 120-member body.
All but one member of the Labor Alignment, the other political bloc in the "national unity" coalition, voted against the measures. The exception was Menachem Hacohen, who was given dispensation from party discipline because he is an Orthodox rabbi.
Labor wants early elections and some of its leaders predicted that the rightist religious parties would now support a move to topple the government.
But religious party leaders said they might try to pass yet another bill before giving up on the issue. Some said it would be better to continue supporting Shamir than the left-leaning Labor Party.
The issue has deeply divided Jews, with the ultraorthodox, who constitute less than 5 percent of Israeli Jewry, pushing hard for the change. Less than 20 percent of American Jews define themselves as Orthodox, with the rest belonging to either the Reform or Conservative movements or having no affiliation. Ultraorthodox supporters consider the other movements illegitimate because they do not strictly follow traditional Jewish law.
But American Jewish organizations -- which last year raised more than $350 million for Israeli causes -- had warned that passage of the measures could rupture world Jewish unity and seriously harm American Jewish support for Israel.
The bill to pardon the seven convicted Jewish terrorists, four of whom were found guilty of murder or attempted murder, was defeated by 69 to 40. Shamir voted in favor but 12 Likud legislators opposed the measure, including Justice Minister Avraham Sharir.
Some of the rightist bloc's most nationalistic members opposed the amnesty bill, saying it would infringe on the powers of Israel's president, who has the sole right to grant pardons.
Shamir's vote in favor of the bill ensured continued support from the small, right-wing Tehiya Party, which sponsored it, and allows him to maintain his shaky parliamentary majority against early elections.