Inside story'We polled it. It was good to take credit for freezing deal'

Why a coalition best suited to fulfill the Kotel compromise has been unable to do so

Previous lofty promises to finally resolve the dispute have encountered opposition by the government’s more religious members, as well as other realpolitik considerations

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Then-minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett unveils a temporary platform built for pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in August 2013. (Ezra Landau/Flash90)
File: In this 2013 photo, then-minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett unveils a temporary platform built for pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (Ezra Landau/Flash90)

On paper, there has been no better Israeli government to implement the long-frozen Western Wall compromise than the one sworn in last summer.

The coalition is led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who was the cabinet member responsible for the 2014 construction of a pluralistic prayer pavilion on the Western Wall’s southern end, which the compromise sought to renovate and formalize. No fewer than five of the current government’s eight parties campaigned on implementing the deal reached in 2016 and criticized former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2017 decision to shelve the plan, due to pressure from Haredi coalition partners. Perhaps most crucially, those Haredi parties, which initially agreed to the compromise before shifting to loudly oppose it, were left out of the government formed in June.

Yet Bennett, together with other senior, right-wing members of his government, have decided not to enact the agreement seen as critical to rehabilitating Israel’s increasingly strained ties with Diaspora Jewry, the majority of which is non-Orthodox.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Friday, Bennett was asked why his government has failed to take up the agreement it appeared so primed to resurrect.

“Controversial topics — and this is a controversial topic in this coalition… we knew in advance that we cannot advance everything,” Bennett said, adding that MKs in his Yamina party, along with other right-wing members of the government, were opposed to the Kotel compromise.

“Therefore, we will only act with consensus,” he added, all but shutting the door on the matter for the foreseeable future.

Prayer services at the pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall, on July 17, 2014. (Gershon Elinson/ Flash90)

While it took Bennett over seven months to publicly acknowledge this position, signs that the government would not be able to follow through on the pledges of some of its most senior members — including Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, and Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai — were there from the get-go.

The Times of Israel spoke with several government officials closely involved in the coalition negotiations, who revealed that the compromise’s official recognition of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism proved to be a step too far for some of the new government’s more religious members. This, they said, was what ultimately led Bennett to follow Netanyahu’s lead and keep the deal on ice.

An issue of recognition

Despite the issue’s lack of salience in Israel, the matter of the Western Wall compromise featured relatively prominently in the coalition negotiations that took place late last spring.

It was then that senior New Hope MK Ze’ev Elkin began crafting a plan to alter the 2016 compromise, according to three lawmakers and two advisers who spoke with The Times of Israel.

Elkin is one of the coalition’s most right-wing, religious members, in addition to being instrumental in its formation. The former Likud MK was a minister when the Netanyahu government initially approved the Western Wall compromise, though he ended up voting against it, along with the ultra-Orthodox cabinet members.

Then-minister of Jerusalem Affairs Ze’ev Elkin attends Sukkot prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, on September 30, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

According to the lawmakers and aides familiar with the matter, Elkin’s issue with the original agreement was its stipulation that representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements would sit on a council tasked with administering the egalitarian plaza.

The clause was seen as granting official recognition to the non-Orthodox streams — something that made the Orthodox Elkin uncomfortable.

“He didn’t want an official document recognizing the Reform and Conservative movements,” Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

Instead, Elkin crafted a new proposal, which would remove mention of the Reform and Conservative representatives, and stipulate only that the chairman of the Jewish Agency would select the members of the council, and that 50 percent of members would have to be women, according to coalition officials.

While there was initial support for the proposal from various members of the coalition, including Shai and his Labor party, Elkin received pushback from other members of the Yesh Atid bloc of secular parties, who were adamant that official recognition for the non-Orthodox denominations was a key component of the 2016 deal, and that it could not be rescinded.

As a result, a commitment to implement the Western Wall compromise was removed from the coalition agreement signed by Bennett’s Yamina and Lapid’s Yesh Atid at the very last minute, according to coalition officials.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, left, meets with Labor leader Merav Michaeli in the Knesset on April 19, 2021. (Knesset Spokesperson’s Office)

The pledge did still appear in the deals that Yesh Atid inked with the Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu, and Labor parties, but the agreement between Yesh Atid and Yamina states that all other coalition deals are subservient to it, in the event that there are any discrepancies.

Despite leaving it out of their coalition agreement, Bennett and Lapid agreed to add the Kotel compromise to a list of issues to be discussed by government members after they passed a budget in November.

In an interview with The Times of Israel conducted as votes on the budget were taking place, Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana said that the government should try “to return, as far as is possible, to what was agreed in 2016.”

Coalition officials said Kahana gave the interview under the assumption that Elkin’s new proposal would be adopted. Ultimately, though, consensus around the issue was never reached.

Survey says…

At that point, the matter moved to a question of who would take responsibility for the logjam preventing the Kotel compromise’s implementation.

While it was Elkin of the New Hope party who was the driving force behind the dispute, the housing minister known for his backroom dealings has avoided commenting publicly on it.

Instead, it has been Yamina that offered comments effectively confirming the government’s inability to move on the issue.

Less than a month after his Times of Israel interview, Kahana appeared to walk back the initial pledge, saying: “I don’t think it’s right to give over control of parts of the Western Wall to streams that don’t represent the vast majority of Jews in Israel.”

Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana (left) and Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch attend a ceremony on Hanukkah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on November 29, 2021. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Last month, Kahana went further, telling aides that the issue was being dropped completely from the government agenda.

According to one coalition official who spoke with The Times of Israel, Yamina conducted internal polling on the matter and found that it was politically beneficial for the party to take credit for the government’s decision not to implement the Western Wall compromise, given the lack of support for the deal among the faction’s targeted base of supporters.

Both Elkin and Kahana declined requests for comment.

Conversing among themselves

Meanwhile, Bennett’s spokeswoman, Keren Hajioff, insisted that no final decision had been made on the issue.

She noted in a statement that the pluralistic prayer pavilion was established when Bennett was diaspora affairs minister and that the section remains “open for prayer to Jews of all streams of Judaism.”

Moreover, the Prime Minister’s Office “is working to upgrade the [southern] prayer section and is conducting renovations to improve the accessibility and appearance of the prayer area so that it remains welcoming to all.”

“At the beginning of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s term in office, he directed his cabinet secretary, Mr. Shalom Shlomo, to renew the dialogue with the various streams of Judaism. Since then, regular meetings and frequent communication have been maintained — including dialogue on this matter,” Hajioff said.

Then-education minister and Jewish Home party head Naftali Bennett delivers a statement to the press in response to the UN vote against Israeli settlements, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, on December 25, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90/File)

But leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements said that they have only met with Shlomo twice since the government’s June establishment and that no formal proposal was presented for their consideration, including Elkin’s idea for the Southern Section Council.

Rakefet Ginsberg, who heads the Conservative movement’s Israel branch known as Masorti, said Monday that removing recognition for the non-Orthodox streams at the Kotel was a non-starter.

“There was already a significant compromise for the non-Orthodox streams in that we’ve agreed to [a pavilion] in an adjacent site at the Kotel, rather than the main section. The main thing we did receive was the formal recognition in the management of the site,” Ginsberg said.

She also noted the increasing politicization of the Jewish Agency chair’s election and argued that management of the pluralistic prayer pavilion was too important to get bogged down in such affairs.

“The site belongs to the Jewish people and its varying denominations, so if the main part is completely Orthodox, then the other parts should be for the other streams,” Ginsberg maintained. “We’re not involved in the management of the main section. All the more so, it’s important to safeguard the role of the Reform, Conservative and Women of the Wall representatives in the management of the ‘Israel Plaza’ section in order to maintain the character of the space.”

The Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs was particularly irate, pointing out that all negotiations over the matter were being held between government members themselves and that representatives of the movement were not substantively included.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, center, and other progressive Jews clashing with security guards in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, November 16, 2017. (Noam Rivkin Fenton/via JTA)

“To say that [this decision] is the result of unsuccessful negotiations with the movements or anyone else that was a part of the original [2016 deal] negotiations is just fanciful,” Jacobs said.

He also dismissed Bennett’s explanation that the government could only move on matters of consensus.

“There’s more consensus on this issue in this government than in any government that Israel has had,” Jacobs said, noting that opponents make up a small minority in the coalition.

“We’re not disappointed — we’re outraged by the immediate and unilateral walking away from this,” he said.

He added the non-Orthodox movements are still prepared to hold negotiations with the government on the issue. He stressed, however, that “modest physical upgrades promised by the prime minister are welcomed, but they will not suffice.”

Deciding not to decide

Jacobs also said that Bennett’s recent interview “coincided with an entire disinformation campaign to incite violence against the Reform and Conservative movements.”

Jacobs appeared to be referencing demonstrations against monthly pluralistic prayer gatherings which have received the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and UTJ, as well Netanyahu himself.

Bennett referenced this “campaign” in a November Facebook post, claiming its backers shared a “goal of slamming the government.”

But the Reform leader suggested that in refusing to implement the Kotel compromise, Bennett was caving to those very same opponents.

Then-minister of health Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party (right) and then-interior minister Aryeh Deri of Shas (left) flank the ‘Rabbi of the Western Wall,’ Shmuel Rabinovitch, during a visit to the pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 30, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

There are other issues at play. One coalition member noted that Elkin and other opponents of the original 2016 agreement are also motivated by a desire to coax the Haredi parties to join the coalition. They recognize that implementing the Kotel compromise would all but doom those efforts.

To many of the government’s most senior members, the last word on the matter has not been said.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told his faction on Monday that Yesh Atid would not give up on formalizing the egalitarian prayer space.

“I think it is right for the State of Israel to take a position of equality regarding the various denominations of Judaism and that the Reform and Conservative movements will be given their section at the Kotel as well,” Diaspora Affairs Minister Shai said. “We are losing them. We are losing whatever they have left to be disappointed by.”

In the meantime though, the decision to avoid touching what Kahana referred to as a “hot potato” appears to reign supreme.

Amy Spiro contributed to this report

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