Netanyahu defends suspending the Western Wall agreement. Here’s how.

July 14, 2017

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(JTA)—American Jewish leaders are calling it a betrayal.

They say that 17 months after achieving a historic agreement to provide a non-Orthodox space at Judaism’s holiest prayer site, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged in a Cabinet vote Sunday, June 25, effectively canceling the deal and caving to the interests of his haredi Orthodox coalition partners.

Netanyahu disagrees. Far from killing the compromise, he believes the vote has given it new life. And far from betraying Diaspora Jewry, he says the vote shows his concern for Jews around the world.

In a lengthy conversation with a senior Israeli official, JTA was given some insight into Netanyahu’s defense of the vote freezing the 2016 Western Wall agreement: why he did it, what the vote leaves in place and what it means moving forward.

The agreement, which was passed by the Cabinet in January 2016, has three components. First is a physical expansion and upgrade of the non-Orthodox prayer section south of the familiar Western Wall plaza. Second is the construction of a shared entrance to the Orthodox and non-Orthodox sections. Third is the creation of a government-appointed, interdenominational Jewish committee to govern the non-Orthodox section.

Last month’s decision, the senior official says, leaves in place the physical expansion of the prayer site while suspending the creation of the interdenominational committee. Netanyahu’s haredi partners, the official says, objected to the idea that the committee amounted to state recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism.

With the controversy over the committee frozen, the official says, actual building at the site can start unhindered and will be expedited.

“The symbolic piece was holding the practical piece hostage,” the official, who wishes to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue, says. “What was frozen yesterday was the symbolic part. The practical part of advancing the prayer arrangements, that can now move forward. Regrettably, there are those on both sides who are spinning this as cancellation.”

However, several aspects of the project as it stands are murky. It isn’t clear whether the expansion of the site will proceed according to the dimensions outlined in the 2016 agreement. Nor is it clear whether construction will begin on the shared entrance to the site or whether the non-Orthodox space will have a staff, accessible prayer books, and Torah scrolls, as promised in the agreement.

The official says that the suspension of the deal is itself a compromise: the haredi parties wanted to cancel the deal altogether, a step he says that Netanyahu was unwilling to take. Freezing the agreement, the official says, allows for continued negotiations to rework it. It also may provide an acceptable answer to the Supreme Court, which is considering a petition to force the government to provide an “appropriate space” for non-Orthodox prayer at the wall.

The official adds that “The prime minister takes Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry very seriously.”

But non-Orthodox leaders are not placated by these assurances.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, calls the vote “sleight of hand.” He is treating it as a cancellation of the agreement, given that the agreement had not been implemented nearly a year and a half after being passed.

“It’s not really a freeze, it’s a kill,” he says. “It’s already been frozen. It hasn’t been moving for 18 months. We were waiting, and assured by the prime minister that entire time that negotiations were happening and they would get back to us. That hasn’t happened.”

- Ben Sales

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