Sharansky: Western Wall Plan at Risk of 'Falling Apart' if Negotiations Reopened

Major changes could 'undermine the level of trust that has been established between the prime minister and the leaders of world Jewry,' Jewish Agency chairman tells Haaretz.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky.
Mark Israel Salem

Reopening negotiations over the new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall could jeopardize the entire plan, warns Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who played an instrumental role in drafting its guiding principles.

“Every word and principle in the agreement involved concessions,” he told Haaretz, in his first public statement since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated his willingness to modify the plan, under pressure from ultra-Orthodox coalition partners. “Once you start dismantling it, everything can fall apart.”

Introducing major changes into the agreement, he cautioned, could also “undermine the level of trust that has been established between the prime minister and the leaders of world Jewry.”

The leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties had notified Netanyahu in recent weeks that they opposed the plan, which was meant to allow the Reform and Conservative movements to hold mixed prayer services for both men and women at a newly designated area at the southern expanse of the Jewish holy site. The plan, approved by the government in January, was hailed as historic by the non-Orthodox movements. 

Two Reform Jews pray at the Robinson's Arch, the proposed site for an egalitarian prayer space near the main Western Wall plaza.
Olivier Fitoussi

Last week, Netanyahu announced that he had appointed his bureau chief David Sharan to oversee discussions between the opposing sides and present recommendations for reconciling their differences within 60 days.

The ultra-Orthodox parties are opposed to providing official government recognition to the Reform and Conservative movements. Their key demand is that representatives of the Conservative and Reform movements not sit on the public authority that will oversee the new prayer space, as stipulated in the agreement. The agreement, however, avoided using the specific names of the non-Orthodox movements as a concession to the ultra-Orthodox representatives to the negotiations.

“Frankly, I think they found a good compromise about it in the text of the agreement,” said Sharansky, commenting on this key point of dispute. 

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the ultra-Orthodox custodian of the Western Wall, had been party to the negotiations that spanned two-and-a-half years. Two weeks ago, well after the agreement had received government approval, he withdrew his support. 

When asked to comment on this about-face, Sharansky measured his words. “I have a lot of sympathy for his difficult situation,” he said, “and I have always said that he and Anat Hoffman [chairwoman of Women of the Wall, the feminist prayer group that was also party to the negotiations] are the big heroes of this story because they faced a lot of criticism within their own camps while making the compromises. 

"But everyone needs to stand behind their decisions, and he had many opportunities to go and discuss this with different rabbis and politicians. It’s important to stick to positions you’ve taken when you’ve signed something."

If they are forced into additional compromises, the heads of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel have threatened to petition the High Court and demand more far-reaching concessions. Rather than suffice with the implementation of the plan approved by the government, they say, they will demand that a section of the existing prayer space in the northern expanse of the Western Wall be allocated to them.

“I really think that using the language of threats is not productive,” said Sharansky when asked to comment on these demands. “But yes, I think it’s important to realize that as in many other cases, when the government doesn’t make decisions, the Supreme Court does, and this vacuum is not good.”

Asked if he was confident the plan would ultimately be executed, Sharansky responded: “If there is one person in the government who understands the importance of this compromise and the importance of bringing together Israel and world Jewry, it’s the prime minister, and that’s why I do want to give him the time and opportunity he asks to bridge the disagreement.  I definitely don’t want to undermine his efforts by expressing any doubts about his finding his way out of it.”