Lawmaker seeks legal probe into cancellation of Western Wall prayer plan

Freezing of plan for mixed-gender worship spot at Jerusalem holy site was not on cabinet agenda, says MK Elazar Stern, calling move ‘underhanded’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Yesh Atid  MK Elazar Stern, speaks during a conference for Young Leadership programs, at Haifa University, on April 11, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern, speaks during a conference for Young Leadership programs, at Haifa University, on April 11, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

An opposition lawmaker on Monday asked the attorney general to probe the cabinet decision to cancel a plan for a pluralist prayer site at the Western Wall, saying the “underhanded” move was rushed through without following proper procedures.

On Sunday government froze the plan, in an apparent concession to opposition from ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, prompting widespread outrage from Diaspora Jewish groups.

“Cancellation of the Western Wall plan is causing a serious crisis between Israel and Diaspora Jewry and a decision like this, taken in an underhanded and secretive way, far from the public eye, and without the ministers being able to prepare in a proper way for a debate, casts a deep shadow over it,” MK Elazar Stern said in a letter to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit,

Because the issue was not on the agenda and there was no indication that it would be discussed, “no comments were received from the attorney general beforehand, the subject (which is controversial) did not go through any public debate before it was decided, and government ministers had no ability to prepare properly for a discussion.”

The attorney general had also made known that he would not be attending the cabinet meeting, Stern said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 25, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 25, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

He asked Mandelblit to look into “why the prime minister used his authority in regard to this controversial issue, of all times, just when all the federation heads are in Israel for the Jewish Agency board meetings in Jerusalem.”

The request from Stern, of the opposition centrist Yesh Atid party, came as the fallout from the controversial decision continued to shake the Jewish world.

On Monday, the Jewish Agency took the unprecedented step of criticizing the government, canceling an invitation to Netanyahu to attend a dinner with the board of governors, who are currently in Jerusalem for its thrice yearly meeting.

Soon afterwards, Richard “Rick” Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism in the US, canceled a meeting he had scheduled with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying “there’s nothing to talk about with him,” Israel Radio reported.

Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs, center, participating in a prayer service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, July 4, 2016. (Courtesy of the URJ)
Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs, center, participating in a prayer service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, July 4, 2016. (Courtesy of the URJ)

On Sunday, the cabinet suspended a plan, which had been years in the making, to create a government-funded pluralistic prayer area for mixed gender services separate from the existing, single-sex Western Wall prayer spaces.

Ministers at the meeting said the subject was not on the agenda and was not even mentioned until the end of the discussions when the prime minister asked them to vote on the plan’s cancellation, Army Radio reported.

Those who had left the meeting early did so knowing nothing about the planned vote and therefore could not leave a note indicating which way they wanted to vote.

Government regulations specify that subjects for debate at a cabinet meeting must appear on the agenda at least 48 hours beforehand, together with background materials for participating ministers. The rules do, however, authorize the prime minister to raise issues he or she judges to be important even if they are not on the agenda.

The Prime Minister’s Office told Army Radio that Netanyahu had raised this particular issue on the day that the government was required to respond to the High Court and therefore it was perfectly proper.

One of the only ministers to be advised before the cabinet meeting that the issue would come up was Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who told the meeting that cancellation of the plan would cause “terrible harm to Jewish unity and to the alliance between the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman delivers a speech at the third day of the 53rd Munich Security Conference (MSC) at the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich, Germany, on February 19, 2017. (Christof Stache/AFP)
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman delivers a speech at the third day of the 53rd Munich Security Conference (MSC) at the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich, Germany, on February 19, 2017. (Christof Stache/AFP)

Liberman also slammed a new bill that would require the state to recognize only conversions completed under the auspices of the ultra-Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate of Israel. “What the [rabbinate’s] Conversion Authority is doing is distancing people from Judaism,” he charged.

He warned that the measures “will destabilize the coalition” and vowed to “oppose these initiatives aggressively.”

The conversion bill was green-lighted by the powerful Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday, lending it coalition support on its way to a Knesset vote.

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