U.S. Demanding Swift Solution for Equality at Western Wall, Says Israeli Official

Issue affects Israel’s foreign relations, PMO official tells government panel.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Robinson’s Arch near the Western Wall.
Robinson’s Arch near the Western Wall.Credit: Tali Mayer
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The U.S. administration is highly involved and interested in reaching a suitable and swift solution to non-Orthodox prayer arrangements at the Western Wall, according to an official in the Prime Minister’s Office, who also said the issue affects Israel’s foreign relations.

Washington regards the problem as sensitive and fears that far-reaching structural changes at the site could spark a confrontation with Palestinians over the Temple Mount, according to Reuven Pinsky, chairman of the PMO’s national heritage department, whose comments were revealed in a recently released protocol of a government meeting in November.

Pinsky was explaining to a committee why it should grant an exemption from issuing a tender in order to enable the PMO to continue working with an architect long involved in the plans for Robinson’s Arch. An egalitarian prayer platform for non-Orthodox worshipers is supposed to be built at the Robinson’s Arch site, south of the existing Western Wall prayer plaza.

During the course of the discussion with the exemption committee, Pinsky explained that it is urgent that the work relationship be approved and that a plan be presented very soon. According to the protocol of the meeting, the reason for the urgency, he said, is “the sensitive issue on the agenda, which affects both Israel’s foreign relations in the prism of the Jewish communities in the United States and the U.S. administration, which is very involved and interested in a suitable and swift solution, as well as domestic factors and the Israeli public as a whole.”

Over a year ago Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky presented a far-reaching plan for building a huge prayer plaza where non-Orthodox Jews could pray, on most of the area of the compound. It would have required construction work adjacent to the western supporting wall of the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, and the location of the al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site. The plan was torpedoed, mainly due to the anticipated opposition of the Palestinians and the Jordanians, who were concerned about construction near the Temple Mount. The Israeli Antiquities Authority also opposed the plan.

For the last 10 months, a committee headed by Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit has been working on a more modest plan for an egalitarian prayer platform at Robinson’s Arch that does not require any significant construction work adjacent to the Temple Mount.

The plan is supported by the rabbi of the Western Wall, the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States and the Women of the Wall organization, which last October agreed to back down from its demand of the past 25 years, to hold prayers at the central Western Wall plaza.

In requesting the exemption from the tender process in November, Pinsky said that “in light of the policy being led by the prime minister, there is a good chance of succeeding and reaching an agreement on this sensitive issue.”

Although the committee approved the PMO’s request to continue working with the architect, there is still no consensus over the plan. Sources in the PMO say that it is not diplomatic issues that are holding up plans, but rather further demands by the Women of the Wall and the non-Orthodox denominations.

Reform leader to meet PM

Meanwhile the Union for Reform Judaism president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who arrived this morning on a visit to Israel, is scheduled to meet Wednesday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the Western Wall prayer issue, among other things.

According to Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of Israel’s Movement for Progressive Judaism, the proposed plans for the prayer areas “will rise or fall” on the issue of a shared entrance plaza for the Orthodox and non-Orthodox prayer areas.

“The question is whether someone who comes to visit this site will feel a part of the official Kotel site, or will enter a closed side compound meant for the non-Orthodox denominations,” said Kariv. “As far as we’re concerned, the entire plan can rise and fall on that.”

Until an agreement is reached, the Women of the Wall continue to conduct monthly prayers in the women’s section of the main plaza, by dint of a ruling by the Jerusalem District Court that recognized their right to pray according to their custom at the site. This Thursday, the first day of the month of Iyar, Jacobs is also scheduled to join the prayers.

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