Netanyahu Tells U.S. Jewish Reform Leaders: I'm Committed to Western Wall Deal

In Jerusalem meeting, the prime minister says he will make every effort to resolve the crisis with the ultra-Orthodox parties, which are blocking a government-approved compromise for an egalitarian prayer space.

A woman praying at a Western Wall section known as Robinson's Arch, March, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told American Reform Jewish leaders at a meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday that he is committed to a government-approved plan for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

Netanyahu told the delegation, headed by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, that he would make every effort to resolve the matter with the ultra-Orthodox parties, which are blocking the decision made by the government in January 2016.

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A source familiar with the details of the meeting, which was held at the Prime Minister’s Office, said that the talk was planned to take place between the Reform leaders and Netanyahu’s diplomatic adviser Yonatan Shechter. The prime minister was slated to drop by for a few minutes to welcome the delegation, but a half an hour after the meeting started he came in and addressed the group for an hour. 

Netanyahu told the delegation that Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who attended the meeting, was appointed a few weeks ago as an intermediary between them and the ultra-Orthodox parties to reach a compromise that would allow the plan to be implemented. 

According to the source, who asked to remain anonymous, Netanyahu said he was committed to the plan and had appointed Hanegbi to find a solution to the crisis. Netanyahu said he opposed the provocative statements made by ultra-Orthodox lawmakers and ministers against Reform Jews and pledged to continue censuring any such statements made in the future.

During the meeting, Jacobs criticized the wave of construction in the settlements, the law restricting loudspeakers from mosques and the law allowing for the expropriation of private Palestinian land. Netanyahu listened to the criticism and responded. On the matter of the settlements, Netanyahu pulled out a document and read from it that the entire area where settlements are built constitutes 1.75 percent of the West Bank and, therefore, even if the settlements are a challenge in negotiations with the Palestinians, a solution can be found.

As for the expropriation law, Netanyahu said that in the United States, illegal construction on private land is not demolished if 20 years have passed, but rather the landowners are compensated.

In January last year, the government approved construction of a plaza south of the Western Wall, where men and women could hold joint prayer services, to serve the Reform and Conservative movements. Ultra-Orthodox cabinet members voted against the decision, but did not initially consider it a reason for a coalition crisis.

After they were harshly criticized in the ultra-Orthodox press, Shas and United Torah Judaism said that if the plan were implemented they would leave the coalition. The plan has been put on hold since then, which the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and the United States see as the government backtracking on agreements it had made with them. The movements have been waging a public campaign against the government in the American Jewish community.

In a statement published after the meeting, Jacobs and URJ Chairman Daryl Messinger said the discussion with Netanyahu and his aides was "wide-ranging and candid."

"We are pleased that the Prime Minister has appointed Minister Tzachi Hanegbi  to move the process forward," their statement said.

The Reform leaders said that they stressed "support for two states for two peoples as we had done earlier in the week in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas," adding that they expressed their "concerns about the expansion of settlements."

The statement said that the delegation asked Netanyahu to personally follow an ongoing police investigation into violence against a Reform congregation in central Israel: "We reported on the vibrant Purim celebration we attended at Kehilat Ra'anan in Ra'anana which, earlier this year, was the site of vandalism and death threats against Reform Movement leaders. We urged the Prime Minister to help assure that the investigation into those threats is moving forward."

Reform and Conservative Jews comprise the majority of U.S. Jewry. A Pew survey published a few days ago showed that 18 percent of American Jews define themselves as Conservative, and 35 percent as Reform. Various estimates indicate that close to 3 million American Jews define themselves as either Reform or Conservative, as opposed to about 10 percent, or 600,000 American Jews who define themselves as Orthodox.

Amir Tibon contributed to this report.