Israel Expected to Suspend Plan to Build Mixed-prayer Space at Western Wall

Ultra-Orthodox parties have told Netanyahu that they will continue to allow other sects to hold mixed prayer services under Robinson's Arch

Michal Fattal

The Israeli government is expected to notify the Supreme Court on Sunday of its official decision to suspend implementation of the plan to create a special plaza for mixed-prayer services at the Western Wall.

The plan, approved almost a year-and-a-half ago, has never been executed because of opposition from the ultra-Orthodox members of the ruling coalition. In September, the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel, along with Women of the Wall – a multidenominational prayer group – petitioned the Supreme Court to force the government to fulfill its commitment, or alternatively, re-divide the existing gender-segregated prayer plazas to make room for them. 

The state failed to meet past deadlines issued by the Supreme Court to respond to the petition, requesting numerous extensions, but has let it be known, through various channels, that it plans to meet the latest deadline, which falls on Sunday.

“It appears that Netanyahu has officially decided not to decide,” said a source knowledgeable about deliberations taking place in the prime minister’s office.  

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under intense pressure from this ultra-Orthodox coalition partners to cancel the plan altogether. The ultra-Orthodox object to mixed prayer services and do not consider the Reform and Conservative movements legitimate forms of Judaism. 

In exchange, they have let the prime minister know that they would be willing to allow non-Orthodox Jews to continue to hold mixed prayer services near the area known as Robinson’s Arch, at the southern expanse of the Western Wall, as they have been doing since 2000. The Reform and Conservative movements have long maintained that they do not consider Robinson’s Arch an acceptable solution since it lacks the visibility and the accessibility of the main prayer plazas. 

Several years ago, the government constructed a temporary ramp near Robinson’s Arch for the benefit of non-Orthodox worshippers, but in recent months, several yeshivas affiliated with the settler movement have tried to take it over, going so far as to set up a barrier separating men and women when they come to pray there.

At its weekly meeting on Sunday, the cabinet may also vote on suspending the Western Wall plan until some future compromise is reached acceptable to all sides concerned. Netanyahu is reluctant to scrap the plan altogether, as his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners have demanded, aware of the outcry this would spark among Diaspora Jews.

Meanwhile, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee convened on Monday to address a special request from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate that it be allowed to represent itself independently in the Supreme Court case concerning the Western Wall deal. The Chief Rabbinate’s position is that it is the only institution in the country authorized to rule on the status of Jewish holy sites. The committee did not make any decision.