'This struggle we won’t solve'

Netanyahu defends freezing Western Wall deal, Israel’s religious status quo

PM says politicians who loudly condemn him for folding to ultra-Orthodox pressure are quietly offering to do the same after the next election

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

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, a day after the Israeli general elections, March 18, 2015. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, a day after the Israeli general elections, March 18, 2015. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

NEW YORK — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday adamantly defended Orthodoxy’s religious monopoly in Israel, arguing that it was impossible to change the delicate status quo that has existed since the state was founded.

Speaking to Israeli reporters after his meeting with US President Donald Trump, the prime minister made plain that his government will neither recognize the Reform Movement nor attempt to curtail the powers of the Chief Rabbinate, which currently controls personal status issues in Israel such as marriage and divorce.

“There’s a struggle for the recognition of the Reform movement in Israel and to limit the power of the Chief Rabbinate. This struggle we won’t solve,” Netanyahu said in response to a question by The Times of Israel. “There is a struggle, I don’t hide it, it’s a fact. This struggle has been going on for many years, no government has changed it.”

Haredi lawmakers have shown him countless messages they received from “parties across the political spectrum with all sorts of offers,” Netanyahu said, hinting that opposition parties may publicly protest Netanyahu’s policy vis-a-vis the Haredim but are themselves willing to compromise for future coalition building purposes.

“There are a lot of false presentations here,” Netanyahu said. Parties that loudly oppose his kowtowing to ultra-Orthodox demands quietly promise “to forget everything” in exchange for political support after the next elections, he charged.

Prime Minister Netanyahu meets with senior leaders of the US Jewish community in New York, September 17, 2017 (Avi Ohayun/GPO)

Netanyahu on Sunday evening meet with eight senior leaders from various US Jewish organizations. They discussed, among other things, the current crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations that erupted in June when the government suddenly suspended a plan it had previously approved for a pluralistic prayer area at the Western Wall.

The Jewish leaders “asked the prime minister to clarify to US Jewry what he was doing to create a united prayer platform,” according to a readout of the meeting provided by the Prime Minister’s Office. “The meeting took place in an excellent atmosphere.”

The controversial decision to freeze Western Wall agreement followed calls by Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition allies to scrap the deal. The plan, approved by the cabinet in January 2016, would have seen the establishment of a properly prepared pavilion for pluralistic prayer — as opposed to current temporary arrangements — under joint oversight involving all major streams of Judaism.

Reform female and male rabbis pray together at Robinson’s Arch, the Western Wall site slated for future egalitarian services, on Thursday, February 25, 2016. (Y.R/Reform Movement)

Many Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Agency and the Jewish Federations of North America, bitterly denounced the government’s backtracking, threatening to protest until it was reversed.

But on Monday, Netanyahu made plain that he does not plan to change his mind.

“The problem is a structural problem. It is my wish that all Jews view Israel as a home for all Jews,” Netanyahu said, adding, however, that his desire for religious pluralism clashes with decades-old political realities in Israel.

The country’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, was already confronted with two opposing approaches regarding governing matters of religion and state, Netanyahu said.

“On the one hand, there is the desire of the religious public to see the State of Israel be governed, as far as possible, according to halacha (Jewish law). And, on the other hand, there is desire of the secular majority not to see this happen. And therefore they always found these ad hoc compromises for these matters. These compromises change gradually, slowly, in this country. This is our basic approach.”

A recently built platform for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall (photo credit: courtesy)

Defending his controversial decision, Netanyahu stressed that he “didn’t cancel the agreement, but merely froze one paragraph.” The existing pluralistic Western Wall plaza, south of the main plaza, will still be renovated and expanded, he said.

The government is continuing with “the practical steps” of the agreement — which the government had approved after years of negotiations — Netanyahu’s foreign policy advisor Jonathan Schachter told the reporters.

“The Western Wall agreement states, black on white, that it is limited with prayer arrangements only,” he said. “There is not a single word about the status of [religious] streams in Israel.”

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)

The state must respond to a High Court of Justice petition by late this month on “whether it is willing to reconsider the implementation of the Western Wall framework decision, which was ‘frozen’ in a government decision on June 25, 2017.”

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