Labor chief: Government never meant to implement Western Wall deal

Labor chief: Government never meant to implement Western Wall deal

Avi Gabbay implies Netanyahu misled Diaspora Jews on now-frozen agreement to expand egalitarian prayer plaza at holy site

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay heads a faction meeting at the Knesset on October 30, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay heads a faction meeting at the Knesset on October 30, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Avi Gabbay, the head of Israel’s left-leaning Labor Party, implied that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government misled Diaspora Jews regarding a highly contested Western Wall compromise agreement.

Gabbay told the Jewish Agency Board of Governors on Tuesday the government never intended to implement the hard-fought deal to expand the plaza for egalitarian worship at the Orthodox-run Jerusalem site and institute a power-sharing arrangement.

“I was a minister in this government when the Kotel [Western Wall] compromise was approved,” he said in remarks delivered in English. “I was very pleased when the plan was accepted by the Kotel chief rabbi, the cabinet secretary and the reform movement.

“I mean, everyone accepted it, and I remember saying to myself in that meeting: what a great achievement, uniting the Jewish people around a place like the Kotel,” Gabbay said.

“But to my regret, the joy did not last long,” he added. “After the government approved the compromise deal, a senior minister sitting next to me said, ‘Avi, don’t celebrate, it just won’t happen.'”

“I mean, it was a minute after the approval of the government,” Gabby said. “He knew then what we would witness later.”

Gabbay said the government’s “mishandling” of the Western Wall issue had led to a “serious crisis” in its relationship with Diaspora Jews.

A group of American Conservative and Reform rabbis and the Women of the Wall movement members hold Torah scrolls during a protest march against the government’s failure to deliver a new prayer space, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, November 2, 2016. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90

In June, the government suspended the plan it had previously approved for a pluralistic prayer area at the Western Wall, following calls by Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition allies to scrap it. The plan would have seen the establishment of a pavilion for pluralistic prayer — as opposed to current temporary arrangements — under joint oversight involving representatives of all major streams of Judaism.

For many non-Orthodox Jews, the lack of implementation has come to symbolize a dearth of religion freedom in Israel and, increasingly, a divide between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry in general.

On June 26, one day after the cabinet voted to suspend the deal, the Jewish Agency canceled 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 contradicted 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.

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

This week, the Agency snubbed Netanyahu again by not asking him to address the delegates during its meetings in Jerusalem this week, nor to meet privately with the organization’s top leadership.

Netanyahu has sought to downplay the snubs by the Jewish Agency, releasing a statement last month saying that Jewish Agency leaders are in “permanent contact with all levels at the [Prime Minister’s Office].”

On Wednesday, Jewish Agency leaders met with the Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee to discuss the government’s decision to freeze the agreement.

Tempers flared and Agency leaders exchanged heated snipes over the issue, with Jewish Federations of North America President Jerry Silverman saying the government’s backtracking greatly angered US Jewry.

In a bid to calm the visibly upset Diaspora leaders, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi promised changes to the visual appearance of the existing pluralistic prayer platform. However, he made plain that the government is not going to build a common entranceway to be shared by the Wall’s various areas, as the scrapped agreement had stipulated.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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