Jewish Agency snubs Netanyahu ahead of upcoming board meeting

Jewish Agency snubs Netanyahu ahead of upcoming board meeting

In light of ongoing stalemate over Western Wall and conversion bill, Jewish leaders feel that meeting the PM 'may not be urgent'

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Natan Sharansky, left, head of the Jewish Agency, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the latter's Jerusalem office, June 18, 2013. (Kofi Gideon/Flash90/via JTA)
Natan Sharansky, left, head of the Jewish Agency, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the latter's Jerusalem office, June 18, 2013. (Kofi Gideon/Flash90/via JTA)

The Jewish Agency did not reach out to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of its upcoming conference in Jerusalem, neither asking him to address the delegates nor to meet privately with the organization’s top leadership, The Times of Israel has learned.

The Jewish Agency’s snub highlights the bitterness of the ongoing dispute between the government in Jerusalem and Diaspora Jewry over the Western Wall egalitarian prayer plaza and conversion to Judaism.

In June, the Jewish Agency cancelled a planned dinner with Netanyahu to protest both the cabinet’s decision to freeze a plan for a permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall, and a bill advanced by ministers that would cement an ultra-Orthodox monopoly on conversion to Judaism in Israel.

The Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, which brings hundreds of Jewish leaders from the US and other Diaspora communities to Israel three times a year, is opening its third and last meeting of 2017 on Sunday in the capital’s David Citadel Hotel.

The delegates will hear from Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, several ministers and dozens of MKs. But Netanyahu, who usually addresses Jewish Agency Board of Governor meetings at least once a year, has not been invited to speak or to meet with the organization’s leadership, in a step sources said is linked to the fact that he is unlikely to announce any progress on the outstanding matters.

“Among some delegates there is a feeling that as the prime minister doesn’t offer any new perspective, a meeting may not be urgent,” a source in the Board of Governors told The Times of Israel, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Although the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency is not meeting with the prime minister this time, it is meeting with a number of cabinet ministers, and its opening plenary will be addressed by Minister Yuval Steinitz,” said Yigal Palmor, the Jewish Agency’s director of public affairs and communications.

“The Jewish Agency’s leadership is in permanent contact with all levels at the PMO: from the prime minister himself to the director-general, the chief of staff and staff members. The prime minister does not appear more than once a year at Jewish Agency board meetings, and there’s no connection to June’s cancellation of the gala dinner.”

The last time Netanyahu publicly addressed the Jewish Agency was in November 2016 at the Knesset.

Replying to a Times of Israel query, an official in the Prime Minister’s Office said Thursday that Netanyahu “meets several times a year with the leadership of the Jewish Agency, but not every time the Board of Governors convenes.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses Jewish leaders from around the world at the Knesset on November 1, 2016 (Nathan Roi/Jewish Agency for Israel)

On June 26, one day after the cabinet voted to suspend its plans for a pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall, the Jewish Agency cancelled a planned dinner with Netanyahu and changed “its entire agenda for the remaining two days of its meetings in Jerusalem, in order to address the ramifications of these decisions.”

At the time, the Board of Governors unanimously passed a resolution calling on the Israeli government to rescind its decisions, saying they contradict the vision of Israel’s founding fathers and the spirit of Zionism.

The resolution marked the first time the institution — which predates the existence of the State of Israel — has explicitly called on the Israeli cabinet to walk back a decision.

After the dinner was cancelled, top Jewish Agency brass met with Netanyahu in a private meeting, but did not solve the crisis, as Diaspora leaders vowed to keep fighting the government’s decision until the original Western Wall agreement — which was approved by government ministers in January 2016 — is fully implemented.

An illustration of Natan Sharansky’s proposal, which would expand the Western Wall and create a permanent egalitarian space in the Robinson’s Arch area. (Creative Commons/Graphics by Uri Fintzy/JTA)

The Jewish Agency’s snub of the prime minister does not mean that the upcoming Board of Governors meeting will not deal heavily with the Western Wall and the conversion crisis. On Monday morning, for instance, delegates will visit the pluralistic prayer platform adjacent to the main Western Wall plaza together with Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who was appointed as the government’s liaison to Diaspora Jewry on this matter.

Jewish leaders see this meeting as the government’s effort to convince them that non-Orthodox Jews do have a place to pray at the holy site. The Reform and Conservative movements, together with Jewish communities from across the globe insist, however, that certain upgrades be made at the site, in accordance to the cabinet’s January 2016 decision.

Minister Naftali Bennett unveils a temporary platform built for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in August 2013 (Ezra Landau/Flash90)

During next week’s three-day conference, some 120 members of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors are scheduled to meet with dozens of ministers and MKs in small groups. In one session, Rabbis Rick Jacobs and Steve Wernick — the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements, respectively — are set to sit down with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

A secular member of the religious Jewish Home party, Shaked is deeply involved in legislative efforts to change Israel’s conversion laws.

Some delegates are scheduled to meet with Deputy Interior Minister Meshulam Nahari from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which is fiercely opposed to granting non-Orthodox streams any legal or religious foothold in Israel.

Netanyahu is also not going to attend the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly next month in Los Angeles, and it is still unclear whether he will address the gathering at all.

“The leadership of the State of Israel is always represented at Jewish Federations’ annual conference. And, as is our practice, the prime minister is always invited,” the Federations said this week.

“However, because Prime Minister Netanyahu was just in the United States six weeks ago for the United Nation’s General Assembly, and because of the distance from Israel to Los Angeles, he was understandably unable to fit it into his schedule this year. This does not preclude the possibility of a live satellite or video message from him, as he’s done in the past, and that option is under discussion.”

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