AIPAC leaders meet PM, highlight ‘dissident, discordant voices’ in US over frozen Western Wall deal
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AIPAC leaders meet PM, highlight ‘dissident, discordant voices’ in US over frozen Western Wall deal

NY Congresswoman Nita Lowey urges Netanyahu to honor original agreement for permanent pluralistic prayer area

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2015 Policy Conference, March 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. (photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2015 Policy Conference, March 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. (photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)

A delegation from the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC on Thursday held emergency talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following his freezing of an agreement on pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall, and highlighted the “dissident, discordant” voices in the pro-Israel community in the US as a result of the move. A veteran New York member of Congress, meanwhile, called on Netanyahu to honor the original deal.

The three-member AIPAC delegation — outgoing president Lillian Pinkus, incoming president Mort Fridman and Vice CEO Richard Fishman — headed back to the US late Thursday immediately after the meeting. AIPAC refused to comment on the specifics of their talks, which focused on the Israeli cabinet’s decision Sunday to freeze a painstakingly negotiated agreement that would have established a permanent area for pluralistic prayer at Robinson’s Arch, jointly overseen by non-Orthodox religious groups.

A Channel 2 TV report said that AIPAC was concerned that the Western Wall move, and the approval by ministers of a bill that would cement an ultra-Orthodox monopoly over conversion to Judaism in Israel, were undermining activists’ “incentive to work for Israel” and had prompted a “crisis of faith.” The prime minister heard that senior officials, activists and donors were threatening to leave the lobby, the TV report said.

A source familiar with the matter insisted later Thursday, however, that the TV report was “categorically false.” The source said, “There was no discussion at the meeting about the impact of the decision on AIPAC internally, nor was there any suggestion that there was a crisis of faith, nor was there any suggestion that there was a lack of incentive to support the pro-Israel position in this country.”

AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus addresses the annual conference on March 26, 2017 (YouTube screenshot)
AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus addresses the annual conference on March 26, 2017 (YouTube screenshot)

AIPAC did not comment publicly on the content of the meeting, but this source said the AIPAC team offered “an assessment of the impact on the decision on the pro-Israel community” in the US… and indicated that there is a potential for division, because you already hear dissident, discordant voices within the community about the decision.”

AIPAC’s view, said the source, is that “this is a decision to be worked out in the Israeli political process.”

The Channel 2 report also said unnamed US Jewish members of Congress were warning the Israeli government that the “baffling, damaging” decision to freeze the Western Wall deal marked a “breach of shared values.” It speculated that legislators on Capitol Hill might initiate a letter of protest.

Tzachi Braverman, the cabinet secretary who has been charged (along with minister Tzachi Hanegbi) with resolving the crisis, visited the current temporary prayer facility at Robinson’s Arch on Thursday.

In Washington, Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey, who represents a large Jewish constituency in the New York City suburbs, urged Netanyahu to honor the Western Wall deal forged in January 2016.

“As a member of Congress who has advanced the US-Israel relationship throughout my career, I strongly urge the Government of Israel to reverse its decision to suspend the previously approved plan to create a pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall,” she told The Times of Israel in a statement.

“The majority of Jews around the world consider Israel their ancestral homeland, and Israel should provide an opportunity for all Jews, men and women, to have egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall,” she added.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) (screen capture: YouTube/nitalowey)
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) (screen capture: YouTube/nitalowey)

Since the announcement Sunday, which came following pressure from Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition allies to scrap the deal, an internecine dispute has erupted between the Israeli government and numerous global Jewish organizations.

US Jewish groups have taken particular exception to the reversal. The vast majority of US Jewry — roughly 90 percent — is non-Orthodox, according to the Pew Research Center. Thirty-five percent of US Jews affiliate with the Reform movement, and 18 percent with Conservative.

Indeed, both movements have expressed vigorous disapproval of the decision, with Reform leaders canceling an already scheduled meeting with the Israeli premier as a form of protest. The board of governors of the Jewish Agency cancelled a gala dinner with Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Sunday.

On Wednesday, leaders of two major American Jewish organizations called on Netanyahu to “resolve” this issue before it further inflamed divisions and left more Diaspora Jews feeling excluded from the world’s only Jewish state.

Jewish Republican Lee Zeldin, a US Representative for New York's 1st congressional district. (Courtesy JTA)
Jewish Republican Lee Zeldin, a US Representative for New York’s 1st congressional district. (Courtesy JTA)

Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin, also of New York, called on the parties to reach an agreement ending the dispute, which he described as dividing world Jewry.

“The issue of the Western Wall prayer space is causing tension and division in the worldwide Jewish community,” he said in his statement to The Times of Israel. “I strongly encourage the parties to come to an agreement quickly so Jews worldwide can be united at a time when unity is most needed.”

US Jewish Congressmen Ted Deutch and Jerrold Nadler earlier said many constituents were flooding them with complaints about the move.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said the crisis could tear the fabric of US-Israel Jewish ties asunder.

“A lack of unity could lead to an erosion of support, which has been identified by Israel’s National Security Council as a vital security asset for Israel,” the group said.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky (L) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the latter's Jerusalem office, June 18, 2013. (Kofi Gideon/Flash90/via JTA)
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky (L) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the latter’s Jerusalem office, June 18, 2013. (Kofi Gideon/Flash90/via JTA)

Natan Sharansky, who chairs the Jewish Agency, said that Jewish communities and individuals might reconsider traveling or donating to Israel because of the decision.

In his first public speech since taking office on May 16, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said Tuesday he heard such action was being considered, but did not identify any particular organization.

“Yesterday, I heard something that I never thought I’d hear. And I understand the source of the frustration and the source of the anger. But I heard a major Jewish organization say that they needed to rethink their support for the State of Israel,” Friedman said at a B’nai B’rith journalism awards ceremony in Jerusalem. “That’s something unthinkable in my lifetime, up until yesterday.”

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