In his first appearance before Diaspora Jewish leaders, the head of Israel’s largest opposition party shared a little secret: He knew from day one that the government had no intention of following through with its plan to create an upgraded and permanent egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.
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“I was a cabinet minister at the time, and I remember saying what a great achievement this was,” said Avi Gabbay, the newly elected leader of the Labor party in an address to the Jewish Agency Board of Governors on Tuesday.
“To my regret, the joy didn’t last long. As soon as the plan was approved, the minister sitting next to me, who was much more senior, said, ‘Avi, don’t celebrate. It just won’t happen.’ He knew then what we would witness later."
Gabbay, who did not disclose the name of his cabinet source, served briefly as minister of environmental affairs in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. He quit in May of 2016 as an act of protest after Netanyahu ousted Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to make room for another party in the coalition.
These were Gabbay’s first public remarks on the Western Wall controversy since being elected head of the Labor party in July. “I’m a believing Jew, and I’m of the view that every Jew has the right to express himself in his way – secular, Orthodox, Conservative or Reform,” he said, drawing a round of applause from the audience.
In January 2016, the government approved a plan to upgrade the existing temporary prayer plaza used by non-Orthodox Jews on the southern side of the Western Wall for mixed-gender services. The plan would also have provided the Conservative and Reform movements with official recognition at the Western Wall. Under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, however, Netanyahu pushed through a vote in June to suspend the deal.
Describing the current situation as “unacceptable,” Gabbay said: “Would the soldiers who liberated the Western Wall in 1967 believe that we, the Jewish people, would be fighting about it like this today? It’s unbelievable, and we should fix it."
Earlier in the day, members of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors met with Israeli lawmakers to explain why they felt so betrayed by the government's decision.
At a special meeting of the Knesset caucus devoted to strengthening Jewish unity, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky was unusually downbeat about the prospects of resolving the dispute. “The crisis continues,” he said, noting that little, if any, progress had been made in recent months by the Israeli government to resolve it.
Yehuda Glick, an Orthodox member of the ruling Likud party, earned a round of applause from Diaspora Jewish leaders when he said the government was entirely to blame for the crisis over the Western Wall.
“A deal is a deal, and you can’t break a deal,” he said, “and here I believe that the Israeli government has turned its back on the Jewish people. Now it has the responsibility to solve this crisis. We cannot allow Jewish people from around the world to not feel part of Israel."
Earlier this week, a senior representative of Israel's government tried to reassure world Jewish leaders that Netanyahu remains committed to the agreement. They didn’t buy it, though.
“What we understood is that the few crumbs the government has said it will throw our way it will continue to throw our way,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, summing up the meeting. “We said, I believe loudly and clearly, that those crumbs are unacceptable and the unilateral declaration that there will be some minor improvement will not meet the approval of Diaspora Jewry or those here in the State of Israel.”
Tzachi Hanegbi, deputy minister for regional cooperation and a close confidant of the prime minister, met with Jacobs and other members of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, hoping to convince them of the need to make further compromises. Hanegbi had been asked by Netanyahu to find a way to resolve the crisis with Diaspora Jewry that was sparked by the Western Wall controversy.