Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev placed a roadblock in the path of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to expand the mixed- gender prayer area at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on Wednesday.
Regev announced she is resigning from her post as head of the ministerial committee responsible for approving such construction at the archeological site at the southern end of the Kotel, near what is called Robinson’s Arch. Netanyahu was pressing her to convene the committee and approve the expansion as soon as possible.
Her conscience does not allow her to convene the committee and approve the work to prepare the historic archeological site for mixed-gender prayer, said her office on Wednesday.
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Last week Haaretz reported that Netanyahu was pressuring Regev to approve the work. In April, a petition was filed with the High Court of Justice against work at the site, which was carried out in a very limited fashion last year. The petitioners claim the work has caused damage to the historic site. The approval by Regev’s committee is necessary for the state to notify the High Court that the expansion of the prayer site has received all the required approvals and permits.
Netanyahu is worried that if the committee does not approve the construction soon, the High Court will rule against the government and forbid the work. That could lead to a High Court ruling that would allow mixed-gender prayer in the Kotel Plaza itself – which would lead to a political crisis.
According to the Antiquities Law, any construction at an archeological site requires the approval of a special ministerial committee for holy places, which includes the minister responsible for the Israel Antiquities Authority, in this case Regev, alongside Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay.
In June 2017, because of pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties, the cabinet retreated from its decision to provide an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, which the cabinet had approved in January 2016.
The plan was formulated in coordination with the U.S. Conservative and Reform movements. The original framework included the expansion of the prayer area at the southern end of the Kotel and the establishment of a new public council to be in charge of the new mixed prayer space.
This council was to include representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements and the Women of the Wall. This was a precedent-setting decision recognizing Reform and Conservative prayer services officially for the first time, and led the Haredi parties to fight to revoke the deal.
After this agreement was canceled and attempts to reconcile with the Reform movement in the United States failed, Netanyahu announced the prayer area at the southern end of the Kotel would be expanded, using 18 million shekels ($5 million) of government funds. This work was started last year and deputy cabinet secretary Ronen Peretz was given responsibility for the matter.
In April the right-wing nonprofit organization B’Tzedek petitioned the High Court against the Antiquities Authority, saying the work being carried out was illegal. The petition was supported by a document from the official government Archaeological Council on the damage caused to the historic site by the work to expand the prayer space.
Netanyahu was hoping to “compensate” the Reform movement with the new egalitarian prayer site.
It is not clear what effect Regev’s resignation will have on the decision because the committee was established by law, and not a cabinet decision. The Antiquities Law states that the committee’s chairman is the Education and Culture Minister, but after the ministry was split into two, it was decided that the committee belonged to the Culture Ministry. As a result, it seems Regev and her ministry will be forced to give up responsibility for the Antiquities Authority in general, which will be returned to the Education Ministry.
Regev’s office said she informed Netanyahu that she strongly opposes mixed Reform prayer at Robinson’s Arch and did not intend on having the committee approve the construction.