Urgent steps must be taken to prevent an archaeological park near the Western Wall being handed over to the right-wing settler group Elad, Deputy Attorney General Dina Silber wrote in a legal opinion this week, noting that the site must be run by a government agency.
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As reported in Haaretz two weeks ago, the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter recently signed an agreement with Elad – which manages the popular City of David tourism site in East Jerusalem. Under the new deal, Elad would take over management of the Jerusalem Archaeological Park and the Davidson Center. The agreement was approved by the Jerusalem District Court last week.
However, the deal has sparked widespread opposition, including from the Reform and Conservative movements. Under a compromise reached with the government last year, the park was earmarked for an extension of the Western Wall Plaza where non-Orthodox groups could pray according to their own customs. Consequently, these movements object to letting an Orthodox group like Elad control it.
Last week, Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit promised them the government would prevent the deal. But in practice, the transfer of responsibility to Elad has already begun.
Silber’s opinion, which was approved by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein before being sent to Mendelblit, asserted that “the Western Wall compound and the adjacent archaeological park must be managed and operated by a government agency, not a private organization,” given the site’s “national and public character” and its “cultural, religious and diplomatic sensitivities.” Therefore, she wrote, the government must ensure that this actually happens, “not for legal reasons, but by virtue of its being a trustee for the public for whose sake the site is maintained.”
The park’s transfer to Elad was unreasonable, she continued, constituting “an abdication by the state of its clear responsibility” toward a site of such national and public importance. It also violates rulings by both the previous attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, and the Supreme Court, which held that sites of great historic, archaeological, cultural, religious or national importance must remain in the hands of a public agency, Silber wrote.
She then offered three recommendations for how to halt the transfer. First, she said, the government should inform the Government Companies Authority and the board of the Jewish Quarter development company that at least two legal flaws in the transfer agreement enable its cancelation: the development company’s board doesn’t currently have enough members to approve the agreement, and under the Government Companies Law, an agreement of this kind needs the cabinet’s approval, because it essentially constrains the government’s own powers. Another possible flaw is that Elad was given the contract without a tender.
Second, Silber said, Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel should use his authority to halt the transfer.
Finally, if neither of those work, the state should seek a court order against the deal, she advised.
“No to privatizing the Western Wall – that’s what the Government of Israel should say,” Silber concluded. “That’s the entire Torah on one foot.”