Netanyahu to U.S. Jewish Leaders: I Didn't Capitulate to ultra-Orthodox on Western Wall Deal

Netanyahu tells American Jewish federation leaders that any other prime minister would have canceled the deal outright; Jewish Agency warns that move will hurt Diaspora contributions to Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at a cybersecurity conference in Tel Aviv, June 26, 2017.
Gil Cohen-Magen

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the leaders of U.S. Jewish federations on Monday that any other premier would have given in to pressure from ultra-Orthodox political parties and completely canceled the plan for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, two senior Israeli officials involved in the meeting told Haaretz.

The meeting was called over the crisis stemming from the Israeli government’s decision to freeze the agreement for a mixed prayer space at the Kotel until further solutions could be found, and also a decision by ministers to back a bill limiting the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel.

Jerry Silverman, president of the Jewish Federations of North America, attended Monday evening’s meeting with Netanyahu, along with the CEOs of the New York, Chicago and Cleveland Jewish federations.

Another participant was the new chairman of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, Michael Siegal, who has been considered a personal friend of Netanyahu for years.

The prime minister clarified that as opposed to claims made over recent days, he did not cave in to pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties, the two officials said.

Netanyahu told the U.S. Jewish leaders that, for him, all Jews are Jews, but some of his governing coalition partners do not see things the same way, said one of the officials.

The decision to freeze the Western Wall agreement will actually allow practical arrangements on pluralistic prayer there to advance, added Netanyahu.

During the meeting, Netanyahu attacked opposition members who had criticized the decision.

“Almost every government will have the Haredi parties as members,” he said, referring to Shas and United Torah Judaism. “It is easy for the opposition to talk about how if they were in power they would have stood on principle against the Haredim. We know the truth is different,” he told the Jewish leaders.

The Americans, including Siegal, told Netanyahu the crisis following the two decisions was real and deep. “They told Netanyahu this is not a protest that will disappear tomorrow morning, but it’s a story that will remain with us for a long time,” said one of the senior officials involved in the meeting.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky (to his right) at a Bible quiz event in April 2015.
Haim Zach/GPO

Netanyahu also held a telephone conversation Monday evening with Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who was a major figure in arranging the Western Wall proposal last year.

Sharansky expressed his anger in recent days at the government’s decision and handling of the affair. The phone conversation was “not simple,” said a Jewish Agency source. The call did not bring the two any closer to a solution to the crisis and did not lead Sharansky to moderate his criticism of Netanyahu, the source added.

Netanyahu’s conduct in the matter was disappointing, Sharansky told Israel Radio on Tuesday. “Netanyahu knows better than anyone how [important] the Kotel agreement is, but the minute there was a coalition threat [to his government], he backed down,” said Sharansky. “We must do everything to change the message emerging from the Israeli government. Everything will blow up over Israel not recognizing Reform [Jews]. It is a very dangerous message that can drive Jews away,” he added.

The Knesset Strengthening the Jewish World caucus met with the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors about the crisis on Tuesday. Knesset members from both the government and opposition participated in the meeting, which was organized by MK Nachman Shai (Zionist Union) and MK Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beiteinu). At the Knesset meeting, Sharansky said a number of American Jewish federations had sent messages warning that the decision would lead to a halt in contributions to Israel.

Opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) said the cabinet decision to freeze the Western Wall agreement and ministers’ backing of the bill to limit the recognition of conversions were an “embarrassment and disgrace.”

The decisions could lead to a huge dispute within the Jewish people, he said. “We must do all we can to prevent the danger and tragedy that Diaspora Jews – in particular U.S. Jews and the younger generation – feel that they are excluded and are not part of us,” added Herzog.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett reinforced the position of the U.S. Jewish leaders when he stated Tuesday that relations between American Jewry and Israel are in “serious condition,” after the government decisions.

U.S. Jewish leaders told Bennett they felt they received a “slap in the face” from the Israeli government and are no longer wanted here, he tweeted. “This is not the reality, of course, but it is their feeling,” said Bennett. “American Jews are our brothers. Mistakes were made along with a lot of disinformation. The plan is to listen and [conduct a] dialogue and dissipate the rumors.”

Bennett made his comments in a series of tweets and at a press conference.