WASHINGTON (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday defended policies that have sometimes drawn dissent from American Jews, including his government’s freeze last of a painstakingly negotiated agreement with Diaspora leaders on a permanent pavilion for pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall.
Briefing reporters after his meeting with US President Donald Trump, Netanyahu said he was more sensitive than any of his predecessors to American Jewish complaints about the preeminence of the Orthodox in Israel.
“There isn’t a prime minister who tried to work on these issues more than I did,” he said, referring to his efforts to deal with the thorny question of conversion, as well as to bids by non-Orthodox groups to conduct organized prayer at the Western Wall. “These problems are not immediately solvable.”
He said he was close to concluding a plan regarding multi-denominational prayer at the Western Wall. “There will be a prayer space for all denominations at the Kotel.”
There is already an area at the Wall where men and women are not segregated, and the prime minister has promised previously that this facility will be improved. But the now-frozen agreement had provided, among other clauses, for permanent oversight of such a pavilion by a panel including representatives of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism — a provision opposed by Israeli ultra-Orthodox leaders, including the two ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s coalition.
Asked by a reporter about the disparity between his closeness with Trump and the US president’s low approval ratings among American Jews, Netanyahu said “Israel has a national security interest related to its very survival… It’s my responsibility as prime minister of Israel to advance those interests as best I can. We seek always as far as possible agreement with the administration in Washington.”
Netanyahu alluded to the tensions he had with President Barack Obama, the president American Jews voted for in large majorities.
“Sometimes there’s disagreement” with the United States “and sometimes we even acted in the greater interest” of Israel, the prime minister said.
“This has nothing to do with the American political scene,” Netanyahu said, in the briefing for Israeli and Jewish media reporters. “I have the greatest respect for the American Jewish community,” he went on, noting he was scheduled to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Tuesday. “But there are issues affecting the American Jewish community that are not reflected in the Israeli polity.”
American Jews, who consistently vote Democratic, disapprove of Trump in greater numbers than Americans generally. Many cite his perceived bigotries and his policies targeting immigration, minorities and women.
Trump, however, has advanced policies that more robustly reflect Netanyahu’s agenda than any prior president: In addition to recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he has made tough demands of Iran, threatening to pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal he and Netanyahu revile. Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has warned other nations not to oppose the United States when it defends Israel in the body.
Netanyahu said about half of the time he spent with Trump was discussing Iran, and how best he should “fix” the nuclear deal. Netanyahu and Trump want the West to address what they say are the deal’s flaws, including Iran’s missile programs and the clauses in the deal that allow Iran to return to enriching weapons grade fissile material in 10-15 years.
He also said that he and Trump discussed the Iranian threat in Syria, where Iran is an ally of the Assad regime in that country’s civil war.
Netanyahu said he also raised with Trump the status of Jonathan Pollard, the American who spied for Israel and who was released on probation under Obama. Pollard’s travel and activities are limited.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this story.