How the Western Wall deal fell apart

Coming as it did just a week after the government decided to freeze a plan to create an enlarged egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks last Thursday night at the opening of the 20th Maccabiah Games struck some as hollow.

“Remember one thing,” he told the thousands of Jewish athletes from 80 countries around the world. “You are proud citizens of your countries, but remember this is your land, too. Welcome to your homeland, welcome to Israel, welcome to Jerusalem, our eternal capital.”

These words came amid a sea of commentary both in Israel and abroad that Netanyahu’s decision to give in to the demands of the haredi parties in his coalition and freeze the Western Wall plan he favored and passed through the government was nothing less than his government’s way of dissing Diaspora Jews. The feeling was that he was telling them that they cannot pray as they wish at one of Judaism’s most holy sites; letting them know that Israel does not really care that much about what they think.

In other words, to some, Netanyahu’s handling of the Western Wall issue renders his words that “this is your land” as nothing more than empty rhetoric.

The government’s version of events, however, is obviously much different and more nuanced.

According to this account, Netanyahu does care about Diaspora Jewry, which is why he appointed Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky in December 2012 to propose a solution for prayer arrangements at the Wall, and followed that up by naming a committee a few months later made up of Avichai Mandelblit, who was cabinet secretary at the time, Zvi Hauser, who held the job before him, and Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber, to examine prayer arrangements, the need for changes and ways to implement them.

In the government’s account, the Western Wall saga is not a matter of Netanyahu as his critics maintain having made a promise, only then to break it. It is not black and white.

Rather, by this account the highly controversial cabinet decision last month to freeze the plan was the result of efforts made by others to turn a narrow issue into an ideological principle, and a list of mistakes made by all sides.

The story really begins at the start of the Hebrew month of Tevet in December 1988, when the Women of the Wall appear on the scene and pray at the Wall wrapped in prayer shawls. They have conducted similar services there almost every month since.

Their form of prayer, however, has infuriated the religious establishment that administers the site as an Orthodox prayer space. Over the years two things happened: the Women of the Wall encountered anger and often violence during their Rosh Hodesh ritual, some of them were even detained by police and there were numerous legal battles.

In 2012, against a backdrop of continued agitation, and the fact that the prohibition on Reform and Conservative Jews praying at the Wall as they do at home was increasingly unsettling for many Diaspora Jews, Netanyahu asked Sharansky to come up with a compromise.

In addition, Netanyahu appointed the Mandelblit Committee. Set up in May 2013, the panel held 11 meetings with a wide range of people from all sides of the issue, and after over two-and-a-half years of deliberations brought its compromise, largely based on Sharansky’s recommendations, to the cabinet on January 31, 2016. The recommendations were approved.

In the text of recommendations handed to cabinet ministers, the team wrote explicitly that its proposals dealt with the narrow issue of prayer at the Wall, nothing else.

“In order to avoid all doubt, it should be emphasized that the team limited its scope to these aspects alone, and avoided dealing with other aspects related to the status of the Western Wall in its national and official context, or other issues related to the status of the non-Orthodox denominations in the State of Israel,” the document said.

From the government’s point of view, that paragraph is critical, because it made clear that this was not about the recognition of the Conservative or Reform movements, but only about praying at the Wall.

The committee made two major recommendations.

The first, that an enlarged and respectful space for egalitarian and pluralistic prayer be established south of the Mughrabi Bridge.

The second proposal was that this site be administered by a 13-member council, including two representatives recommended by the Reform movement, two from the Conservative Movement, and two female representatives, which the committee advised should be from the Women of the Wall organization.

The framework also designated that the arrangement be anchored in an amendment to a law known as Regulations for the Protection of Holy Places to the Jews.

Looking back on the agreement’s unraveling since the cabinet froze it three weeks ago it is possible to identify two “original sins.”

The first is that despite the mandate of the Mandelblit Committee to find a solution to the Western Wall prayer issue both the pluralistic movements and the haredim, for completely opposite reasons, presented the recommendations as official recognition of the Reform and Conservative movements.

The second issue was the insistence by the Conservative and Reform movements in the negotiations that the framework be set as an amendment to the Regulations for the Protection of Holy Places to the Jews.

Although it makes sense to place the framework under this regulation, doing so ensured that the Religious Services Minister David Azoulay from Shas would have to sign off on it. That was clearly going to be difficult.

The framework was hammered out for the most part under the previous Netanyahu government, one in which Bayit Yehudi head Naftali Bennett was in control of the Religious Services Ministry. Getting a ministerial signature while he was in charge was not expected to be a big deal.

But then elections were called in March 2015 and a new government rose to power which put the Religious Services Ministry in Shas’ hands. In such a situation, the insistence upon making such a legal change effectively gave the ministry veto power over the deal.

One of the concerns that government officials articulated to the pluralistic movements when the cabinet passed the resolution in January 2016, was that they should not “do a victory lap,” or over-interpret the resolution as a sign of official recognition, because that would make implementation much more difficult.

Those concerns were borne out. No sooner did the resolution pass than the movement trumpeted it as a historic victory for recognition.

In a March 2, 2016 article on its website, the Israel Religious Action Center, of Reform Jewry, praised the deal to form a joint committee to administer the site as nothing less than “official recognition by the Israeli government of the vital role Reform and Conservative Jews play in the religious life of the Jewish State.” The only problem with that type of rhetoric was that it was also being herd by haredim and right wingers in the national religious camp, who did not like what they were hearing and swiftly swung into action.

Aided with donations raised with the help of the Ateret Cohanim organization, a massive campaign was launched in the haredi press against the deal. Ateret Cohanim head Matti Dan spoke of it in dire terms On the day the resolution was passed, Dan said in an Arutz 7 interview that “this is the first time in history that the state gives an equal standing to the Reform movement. This is unfathomable, delusional.”

For the next number of months he was a key force behind a public campaign to pressure haredi politicians against the deal.

As a result, from the day the government passed the resolution until the day it froze it, both sides said and did things that drove the other onto its hind legs, making compromise and implementation impossible.

The haredim got cold feet when they started to get push back from their constituents, a reaction triggered to a large extent by a well-financed public campaign. The process was accelerated by the fact the liberal movements were claiming that the deal was, indeed, tantamount to recognition.

Netanyahu needed space and quiet to implement the deal, but that was not forthcoming.

But forget all that, say the critics.

Netanyahu made a promise, and then broke it. The government’s standard reply to that is that passing a resolution does not equal its implementation, pointing at how the cabinet never fully implemented a flagship gas deal it once approved. The relevant minister then Economy Minister Arieh Deri refused to sign off on that deal. He had to quit to get the policy passed. Then it moved on to the Knesset, the High Court of Justice, and some of its terms wound up renegotiated.

To make matters on the Western Wall deal even more complex, most of the negotiations took place under the previous government, which meant that one government hammered out the details, while another had to implement it. Such a situation has been likened to winning chips in one casino, and trying to cash them in at another.

But why did the haredim ever sign off on the deal in the first place? They did so mainly because they saw advantages in the agreement.

Firstly, it would have removed the monthly Women of the Wall “problem”, as this group could now pray in the new section. And secondly, it would codify into law that the existing prayer area is an Orthodox prayer space.

But, according to this telling of events, haredi politicians underestimated the ferocity of the response from a constituency all fired up by the haredi press.

The issue came to the fore now because the High Court of Justice was scheduled in late June or early July to rule on a petition forcing the government to implement its resolution regarding the Wall.

Faced with this dilemma, the haredi parties told Netanyahu they have a way to solve the court problem: Just inform it that the framework has been canceled.

Netanyahu did not want to go that far, however, and said instead it should be frozen. Indeed, that is the route that was taken.

By freezing the resolution the government removed the threat of the court forcing its hand. At the same time, Netanyahu issued three directives.

One of these called for construction of the pluralistic prayer space to be accelerated as per the original plan. The second directive called to leave intact the pluralistic nature of that space south of Robinson’s’ Arch which has existed for 17 years. The last point called for Cabinet Secretary Tzahi Braverman and Regional Cooperation Minister Tzahi Hanegbi to continue talks with the sides in the hope of finding a solution.

What Netanyahu tried to do was split the issue into two. On the one hand, setting aside the symbolic issue of recognition to another day, while on the other hand accelerating implementation of the operational recommendations to build a respectable pluralistic prayer space at the Wall.

Netanyahu hoped these decisions would satisfy the liberal Jewish movements as their desire for a prayer space would be met without infuriating the haredim and triggering a coalition crisis over the recognition issue that was embedded in the question of who would administer the site.

But although technically the framework was frozen, both the pluralistic streams and the haredim interpreted the cabinet vote as a cancellation of the deal. The haredim presented it in this light in a celebratory fashion, while the Reform and Conservative movements presented it in apocalyptic terms.

Netanyahu had hoped that by splitting the issue, he could make everyone happy or, at the least not overly upset anyone. But clearly that strategy didn’t work out.