Under Pretext of Accessibility, Israel Expands Contested Mixed-gender Prayer Area at Western Wall

Netanyahu has been under pressure to compensate non-Orthodox Jewish groups after the government canceled a deal granting them greater rights

A woman wraps tefillin around herself at the Western Wall, Jerusalem.
Daniel Shitrit

A plan to expand the mixed-gender prayer area  at the Western Wall has won final approval, following pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office. 

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The plan, whose details are reported here for the first time, was approved under a special regulation that created a fast-track process authorizing the municipal engineer, in this case Jerusalem’s, to approve work to make a site handicapped-accessible. Such access was called for in the plan, in addition to the expansion of the area and its entrance.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had promised to expand the mixed-gender prayer space, known as the Ezrat Israel, to compensate non-Orthodox Jewish groups for the government’s cancelation, under ultra-Orthodox pressure, of a broader deal to grant them greater rights at the Western Wall. But the expansion was challenged by archeologists who petitioned the High Court of Justice claiming the work would cause irreversible damage to the important archaeological sit.

Since then, Netanyahu’s office has been working to legalize the work already done and secure formal approval for the rest of the planned expansion. The Israel Antiquities Authority prepared a detailed plan, and a special government committee approved it in principle after two ministers who objected to it – Culture Minister Miri Regev and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked – were replaced. The authority then submitted it to the Jerusalem municipality.

In early August, the Jerusalem city council discussed the plan together with the municipal engineer and three officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, headed by Drorit Steinmetz, director of the office’s budget and projects department. 

Sources familiar with what happened at the meeting said that to eliminate red tape, Steinmetz pressed to get the entire plan approved under the regulation that allows fast-tracking work to make sites handicapped-accessible. That would eliminate the need to get the plan approved by the local and regional planning committees, since under this regulation, approval by the municipal engineer is sufficient.

A representative of the Attorney General’s Office who attended the meeting opposed this idea, saying a plan this extensive and sensitive couldn’t be slipped through under the pretext of making the site handicapped-accessible. But the city’s legal advisor, Eli Malka, disagreed, and a week ago, he authorized use of this regulation to approve the entire plan.

Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) responded to the plan's approval, saying that the Western Wall should be under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, which the Prime Minister's Office is trying to bypass. "The argument is about who has the authority in the Western Wall and it's not the Prime Minister's Office, it's the Chief Rabbinate. Can the prime minister bypass the defense minister in things under his purview? The prime minister needs to follow the rules," he said.