Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Deputy Minister Michael Oren on Sunday lambasted the government’s decision to freeze a plan to establish a pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall, and warned it will harm relations between Israel and Diaspora Jews.
Oren, who formerly served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, branded the move an “abandonment of Zionism.”
“Canceling the deal constitutes a severe blow to the unity of of the Jewish people and communities as well as the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry,” Liberman, who heads the Yisrael Beytenu party, said in a statement.
The defense minister stressed that when the plan to construct a mixed-gender plaza was initially approved in January 2016 by the cabinet, two Jewish Home party ministers — Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked — voted in favor.
Liberman urged the right-wing party to “return to their senses” and take action to “prevent the rift within the Jewish people.”
Bennett, who also holds the Diaspora Ministry portfolio, was not present at the meeting and therefore did not vote for or against the proposal.
A spokesperson for the minister said his absence was due to a clash with a pre-scheduled weekly meeting with the head of National Security Council. Bennett deemed that meeting “more important,” given the Western Wall deal was not on the initial agenda and only added at the last minute, the spokesperson said.
He did not comment on how Bennett would have voted had he been present. The Jewish Home minister later told Channel 10 he would have opposed the decision or abstained, had he attended.
Ministers suspended the deal following calls by ultra-Orthodox coalition members to scrap it.
Oren, who serves as deputy minister in the Prime Minister`s Office, sharply criticized the cabinet’s decision.
“The Wall belongs to the entire Jewish people” and shelving the proposal is an “abandonment of Zionism,” he said in a statement.
Oren was involved in formulating the original proposal when he served as Israel’s ambassador to the US. He said freezing the bill “undermines the foundations of the idea of Zionism.”
He said that it hands the decision-making authority for the holy site “to the narrow interests of the ultra-Orthodox parties.”
“This despicable decision sends a sharp message of division and alienation to Diaspora Jewry,” he added. “The State of Israel defines itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people. It must start behaving like it.”
Ultra-Orthodox coalition members Shas and United Torah Judaism said on Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had accepted their position to “freeze” the plan, a move that “reflects the will of most of the nation that seeks to safeguard the Western Wall’s sanctity and status.”
The decision was a “de facto cancellation of the plan,” the parties said in a joint statement, noting it could only be changed by a further cabinet decision.
But in a statement earlier on Sunday, the Prime Minister’s Office said that Netanyahu had instructed Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman and Minister Tzachi Hanegbi to formulate a new plan for the site.
Hanegbi told Army Radio that the plan for a mixed prayer area was suspended, but not nixed completely.
“I’m telling you the reality,” Hanegbi said. Leading ultra-Orthodox MKs “Gafni, Litzman and Deri met with the prime minister many times and tried to annul the mixed plaza deal as if it never existed.” However, he continued, Sunday’s decision did not terminate the plans for a mixed prayer area. He said that construction will continue on a plaza at the southern wall where men and women have been able to pray together for over 15 years.
He said he would use the framework of the proposal which was put on ice as the basis for a new compromise solution.
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism praised Sunday’s cabinet decision, saying that it “sends a clear message to the entire world that Reform Judaism do not and will not have access or recognition at the Western Wall.”
“I thank the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, and the chief rabbis of Israel. In their merit we were able to sanctify God’s name,” he added.
Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel of the Jewish Home party, who had long opposed the mixed prayer area, also welcomed the government’s decision. He said he was “happy the government is choosing to restore the status quo at the Western Wall.”
“We have succeeded in preventing unnecessary division of the Jewish people and harming the social and religious fabric of Israeli society, and the Jewish people,” Ariel said in a statement.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said in a statement that “cancelling the Western Wall plan is another case of Netanyahu reneging on his promises.”
The head of the Zionist Union said Netanyahu was turning his back on Diaspora Jewry, “undermining the delicate fabric that unites the mosaic of the entire Jewish people.”
Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai, who chairs the Knesset Lobby for US-Israel Relations, harshly criticized the decision.
“The government’s flip-flop this morning earns a high score for acrobatics, but ranks low on credibility,” he said in a statement. “Most of US Jewry will feel disappointed, frustrated and betrayed.”
Shai reminded the government of the importance of American Jews, the majority of whom do not identify as Orthodox, and many of whom support mixed prayer at the Western Wall.
“US Jewry is a stable and strong bridge between the two countries, and this morning, that [relationship] was fractured.”
MK Rachel Azaria of the Kulanu coalition party echoed Shai’s views. In a statement she said, “Freezing the Western Wall plan is a serious blow to Israel’s relationship with American Jewry, the second-largest Jewish community in the world. We cannot do such a thing to our brothers, and American Jews are our brothers.
“American Jewry stands up to protect [Israel] on campuses and against the BDS boycott movement,” she said, “this decision harms them.”
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who was at the meeting in which Netanyahu announced his decision, said in a statement, “As chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel, and on behalf of our partners, I must express my deep disappointment at today’s decision by the government of Israel to suspend the implementation of its own decision to establish a dignified space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.
“After four years of intensive negotiations, we reached a solution that was accepted by all major denominations and was then adopted by the government and embraced by the world’s Jewish communities,” he said.
“Today’s decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult. The Jewish Agency nevertheless remains staunchly committed to that work and to the principle of one wall for one people,” said Sharansky.
AFP contributed to this report.