Signaling Commitment to Western Wall Deal, Netanyahu Extends Sharansky's Stint as Jewish Agency Chief

Sharansky is the chief architect of a stalled governmental plan to build an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

Jews attend prayers at the Western Wall plaza, Jerusalem, February 27, 2017.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

Hoping to salvage the government's plan to build an egalitarian space at the Western Wall, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky agreed to a request made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he extend his stint for another year.

Sharansky, the chief architect of the plan, notified Netanyahu of his decision on Tuesday. “Although I was skeptical of the value of remaining for an additional year, what has taken place in recent months has convinced me that it is important that I remain,” he said in a statement. 

“Our ongoing discussions with the government on the Western Wall and related matters have reached a sensitive point, and I will do everything necessary to ensure that the successful negotiations of recent years bear tangible fruit.”

Sharansky was scheduled to resign in June after serving as head of the quasi-governmental agency for eight years.

In a related development, Netanyahu on Tuesday appointed Tzachi Hanegbi, a member his government and close confidante, as minister in charge of a new round of negotiations aimed at overcoming ultra-Orthodox objections to the Western Wall plan. Although the decision to build a new mix-prayer space at the southern expanse of the Western Wall was approved by the government in January 2016, it has not been implemented. Netanyahu has refrained from moving forward with the plan because of objections from many of his Orthodox coalition partners, who deem Reform and Conservative Judaism illegitimate. 

Hanegbi, who serves as a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office in charge of national security and foreign affairs, is considered to have close ties to the ultra-Orthodox parties. His appointment was welcomed by the heads of the non-Orthodox movements.

“If he is the person, we have no objections,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel.

Yizhar Hess, his counterpart in the Conservative movement described the appointment as “worthy.”

“Hanegbi, who has held many ministerial posts, along with serving as chairman of the Knesset security and foreign affairs committee, certainly knows how much the Kotel crisis has harmed one of Israel’s most strategic assets,” he said. “The implementation of the plan will put an end to the deep rift between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.”

The two announcements came after top executives at the Jewish Agency, which is holding its board of governors meeting in Israel this week, convened with Netanyahu. The crisis over prayer at the Western Wall has been of paramount concern to Diaspora Jewish leaders in recent years.

Both the Reform and Conservative movements have insisted, thus far, that they have no intention of reopening the agreement that was approved by the government last year. That agreement in itself, they have stressed, required great sacrifices on their part. Their positive responses to Hanegbi’s appointment, however, indicates a softening in their position.

According to the plan approved by the government, a new and permanent prayer plaza will be built near the archaeological site known as “Robinson’s Arch,” where Reform and Conservative Jews will be able to hold mixed prayer services and where Women of the Wall will be able to hold its monthly prayer service. The egalitarian and gender-separated prayer plazas will be accessed through one entrance, according to the plan, and will enjoy equal visibility. The egalitarian space, according to the plan, will be administered by a new authority in which the Reform and Conservative movements are represented. Many Orthodox Jews oppose the plan because it grants official recognition to the non-Orthodox movements at one of Judaism’s holiest sites.

In his statement, Sharansky noted that “the events of recent months have resulted in a deep polarization between some Jews in America and some in Israel, and it is imperative that we do whatever we can to unite our people.” 

The non-Orthodox movements and Women of the Wall petitioned the High Court of Justice six months ago demanding that the government fulfill its commitment to allocate them a prayer space at the Western Wall. It is not clear whether they will withdraw their petition following the message conveyed by Netanyahu on Tuesday, though his appointments, that he is determined to follow through with the deal.