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Labor MK, minister vow to keep pushing Western Wall deal amid reported shelving

Reform rabbi Gilad Kariv and Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai say religious affairs minister has no authority to spike agreement to build and formalize egalitarian prayer plaza

A platform designated for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall (courtesy)
A platform designated for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall (courtesy)

Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai and MK Gilad Kariv, both of the center-left Labor party, said Sunday that Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana doesn’t have the authority to shelve the so-called Western Wall compromise. Their comments came in the wake of a Times of Israel report that Kahana had decided together with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to freeze the plan.

The deal, long a point of contention between the government and Diaspora Jewry, would create a permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall, with representatives of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism sharing a formal oversight role.

The arrangement, negotiated between Israel and Diaspora leaders over more than three years, was approved by the Benjamin Netanyahu-led government in 2016, but was indefinitely suspended by Netanyahu in 2017, under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

“The Western Wall compromise was discussed directly with the president along with the prime minister and his bureau. The issue is not at all within the purview of Minister Kahana,” Kariv — a Reform rabbi and advocate of the agreement — said in a statement.

“Despite [opposition head Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Shas party chairman Aryeh] Deri’s false attempts to set fire to the Western Wall and deepen the division among the Jewish people for political and personal reasons, the current government has renewed its strategic dialogue between the State of Israel and the liberal streams on the Western Wall and many other issues,” Kariv said, referring to the Shas campaign backed by Likud to prevent the implementation of the 2016 deal, which was reached when both Netanyahu and Deri were in the government.

“As stated in a statement to the High Court delivered a few days ago, the current government is committed to the process of establishing an egalitarian and state-owned prayer plaza at the Western Wall,” Kariv said.

Labor MK Gilad Kariv chars a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on July 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“A clear majority of Knesset members from the coalition and the opposition support this outline and we will stand by its promotion, without playing into the hands of those who use incitement and the discourse of hatred in favor of short-term political gains,” he added.

According to the report, which initially appeared in Zman Yisrael, the Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site, Bennett and Kahana have decided to freeze the plan again, and maybe give up on it for good.

“We have decided to not deal with this now, period,” Kahana told aides over the weekend.

“The Western Wall compromise has become a focus for incitement and hatred, especially by people from Likud, who are latching onto it. We cannot play into their hands. We’re freezing everything at the moment. We’re not touching it,” Kahana said.

Shai, the Diaspora affairs minister, said Sunday in a statement, “This week marks a half-year of the government’s blessed activity. But a government that wants to last is first and foremost advised to learn to respect coalition agreements.

“The government of Israel will continue to strive for the implementation of the Western Wall compromise. As long as [the Labor party] sits in government, we will push for equality for all streams of Judaism,” he said.

“This matter is far from the responsibility of Kahana’s office, and rightly so,” Shai added.

MK Nachman Shai attends a Knesset committee meeting, on November 13, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Bennett and Kahana’s decision goes against commitments made by party leaders in their governing coalition, including recent ones. The move, as Kariv’s comments indicate, could therefore spark disagreements within the coalition, which represents a diverse electorate and includes parties committed to improving ties with Diaspora Jewry.

In early November, soon after the coalition passed the crucial state budget, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said: “The Western Wall compromise is the right thing to do from the religious point of view, and also for everything connected to our relationship with the Diaspora.”

Implementing the compromise was also an important condition in the centrist Blue and White party’s agreement for joining the coalition.

In the coalition agreement that was signed in June, the parties wrote that they were committed to advancing the deal “that was canceled by the Netanyahu government.”

Kariv and his allies in the Reform movement used to go to the Western Wall to hold prayers each Rosh Hodesh, which marks the beginning of the Hebrew month, and demand a new egalitarian prayer area.

Screen capture from video of a Torah scroll brought by Labor MK Gilad Kariv to the Western Wall for use in a women’s prayer group is held aloft, April, 14, 2021. (Israel Hayom)

The events sparked fury in the ultra-Orthodox public.

The head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party Aryeh Deri said, “This is a declaration of war on the country’s Jewish identity.”

Last month, President Isaac Herzog intervened and asked Kariv to not attend a Rosh Hodesh event at the Western Wall to lower the temperature ahead of expected violence. Kariv agreed to forgo the ceremony.

Shalom Yerushalmi contributed to this report.

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