Housing Minister Clashes With AG Over Plan to Give Western Wall Site Settlement Group

Right-wing Elad association tells court that the state prosecutor doesn't represent the government's position.

Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel’s support for placing the running of a key archaeological park near the Western Wall under the management of the right-wing Elad association has brought him into conflict with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and the State Prosecutor’s Office.

The sharp disagreement came to light Thursday at a hearing in which the state requested the annulment of an agreement for Elad to run the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. At the end of the hearing, Elad’s representative, attorney Ze’ev Sherf, agreed that the interim order preventing Elad from taking over management of the park will remain in place.

The publication of the agreement between Elad and the JQDC raised hackles among Reform and Conservative groups, who are negotiating with the government over the establishment of a new, non-Orthodox prayer site near the Western Wall. Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit, who is conducting the negotiations, pledged that Elad would not receive management of the site. If management of the site were to be split – which these groups oppose – they say they would seek to be partners in its management.

The State Prosecutor’s Office, which submitted the request to cancel the agreement between the state-owned Jewish Quarter Development Company (JQDC) and Elad, argued that it is illegal because the cabinet had not authorized it. It is also illegal, the prosecution stated, because the state-run company transferred management of a holy site to a private entity, against the attorney general’s orders and High Court of Justice rulings.

Elad’s response sharply attacked the prosecution, claiming, “The request was not made ‘in the name of the construction and housing minister’ or in ‘the name of the government of Israel’ … Lacking any evidence to the contrary, this request is a private initiative of prosecutors from the State Prosecutor’s Office, which does not reflect the position of the housing and construction minister or the government of Israel.”

Elad also claimed the prosecution had ignored a compromise that had been reached, where Elad would not manage the area closest to the Southern Wall (near Robinson’s Arch), but rather only the other archaeological sections of the park. In addition, Elad said it had assurances of $4 million in contributions, which would be lost if the agreement was abrogated.

Two days ago, Housing Minister Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi), under whose aegis the JQDC comes, wrote a letter that was presented at the hearing, in which he supported the compromise to split management of the park. The letter underscored Elad’s contention that the State Prosecutor’s Office was acting without authorization.

In response to Sherf’s contention that the prosecution was acting without authority, Jerusalem District Prosecutor Leora Havilio said the prosecution took a very dim view of Uriel’s letter. “It goes against cabinet policy, and in a few minutes the cabinet secretary will be here to confirm this.”

In the event, Mendelblit did not arrive at the hearing.

Havilio also said Ariel was aware of the attorney general’s opposition to an agreement to transfer management of the site to a private entity. “The minister said what he said, and from our perspective it neither adds nor detracts,” she said.

The publication of the agreement between Elad and the JQDC raised hackles among Reform and Conservative groups, who are negotiating with the government over the establishment of a new, non-Orthodox prayer site near the Western Wall. Mendelblit, who is conducting the negotiations, pledged that Elad would not receive management of the site. If management of the site were to be split – which these groups oppose – they say they would seek to be partners in its management.

“The farce continues,” said Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative Movement in Israel. “A government company stands shoulder to shoulder with a private association and fights the government in court, to promote an agenda that has nothing to do with proper management or pertinent considerations, but rather promotes only the political agenda of the housing minister,” he said.

Ariel’s office responded, “No one objects to the opinion of the prosecution that Housing Minister Uri Ariel is the minister responsible for the Jewish Quarter Development Company. Minister Ariel received a letter from [Deputy Attorney General Dana] Silber and answered her with his proposal for a compromise that seems proper and to the benefit of the entire public. The prosecution is also aware that the site is not being transferred, but only being operated by a contractor.”

Tali Mayer