Ultra-Orthodox Back Down From Plan to Force Cabinet Vote Against Western Wall Deal

The religious ministers were hoping to revoke the plan to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel.

Women pray with Torah scroll at the Western Wall for the first time, November, 2016.
Michal Fattal

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox political leaders have withdrawn their threat to force a vote in the cabinet this Sunday revoking the plan to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

In a letter sent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this week, they had written that it was their “unequivocal demand” that “as soon as this Sunday” the cabinet annul the decision taken exactly a year ago to allocate part of the Western Wall to the non-Orthodox movements and the Women of the Wall, the multi-denominational prayer group. The decision to create a new space for mixed-prayer services, they wrote, violated the rulings of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

The letter was signed by Minister of Interior Affairs Arye Deri, Minister of Religious Affairs David Azoulay, Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman, and Knesset Finance Committee Chairman Moshe Gafny. Deri and Azoulay represent Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi party, while Litzman and Gafny represent United Torah Judaism, the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenzi party. Also signed on the letter is Minister of Agriculture Uri Ariel from the Habayit Hayehudi party, which is aligned with the settler movement. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who chairs Habayit Hayehudi, supports the creation of an egalitarian prayer space at the Jewish holy site.

A spokesman for Deri confirmed that a proposal to revoke last year’s decision would not be submitted to the cabinet this Sunday, as had been planned, but gave no reason for the about-face. Presumably, the religious ministers were unable to convince Netanyahu to support their proposal and feared an embarrassing defeat in the cabinet.

The government was supposed to have submitted its response on Wednesday to a Supreme Court petition demanding that it fulfill its agreement to create a new space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. It failed to meet the deadline however, and requested an extension of another month. This is the fourth time it has requested such an extension. The petitioners – the Reform and Conservative movements and Women of the Wall – rejected the request for more time, and the Supreme Court has yet to weigh in.

Speaking with Haaretz this week, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky expressed hope that Netanyahu would not bow to pressure from his religious coalition partners and revoke the agreement. “It would be a tragic mistake if he did,” warned Sharansky who drafted the blueprint for the egalitarian space plan.

Citing the one-year anniversary, the Israel Democracy Institute, a prominent Jerusalem-based think tank, issued a special statement this week calling on the government to “urgently implement” the Western Wall plan.

“The Kotel compromise presents a proper balance between the will and desire of Orthodox individuals - who are the majority of those praying at the Western Wall -- to continue praying in the main plaza as they always have, and the will and desire of other Jewish groups that want to pray in the vicinity of the Kotel according to their faith,” it said. “The Kotel should be a place for which all members of the nation of Israel can have a deep connection."

“By speedily implementing the Kotel compromise, Israel will help prevent new and future conflicts from breaking out at the Western Wall and stop the deepening rift between the state of Israel and the Jewish world on this issue.”