Netanyahu Still Committed to New Prayer Space at Western Wall, Sources Say

Ultra-Orthodox parties determined to remove authority of liberal Jewish movements at proposed Western Wall site.

Yair Ettinger
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The area where a plaza for mixed-gender prayer will be placed at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, February 1, 2016.
The area where a plaza for mixed-gender prayer will be placed at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, February 1, 2016. Credit: AP
Yair Ettinger

Sources close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say he remains committed to the planned egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, but that the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism are determined to retract the role that Reform and Conservative movements have in managing it.

Interior Minister Arye Dery (Shas) and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), along with MK Moshe Gafni, met with the prime minister on Sunday. They are also demanding a commitment to strengthen Orthodox exclusivity over the state’s religious affairs by passing legislation that would circumvent last month’s High Court of Justice decision allowing non-Orthodox converts to immerse in state-funded mikvaot (ritual baths).

Five weeks after the cabinet approved the arrangement that was meant to resolve the long-running dispute over prayer at the Kotel, Netanyahu suspended its implementation until he receives an alternative proposal from the chief rabbis. They oppose the new prayer space at the southern end of the Western Wall, which has been dubbed the Ezrat Yisrael plaza.

A meeting scheduled for Sunday with the two chief rabbis and the Western Wall rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, was canceled by mutual consent. The rabbis were asked to present their alternative plan within two to three weeks.

The timeline for setting up the egalitarian prayer space has already fallen behind schedule. Religious Services Minister David Azoulay was supposed to sign regulations setting the plan in motion within 30 days after the cabinet’s January 31 decision to establish the new plaza. He has already said he will not do so.

Last week, the state asked the High Court of Justice for a 90-day extension to implement the plan, in response to a petition by the Women’s Justice Center. Its members are demanding to pray as they see fit at the Kotel. The decision to give the chief rabbis time to come up with an alternative is based on the assumption that the court will agree to the postponement.