Netanyahu Approves Work to Expand Western Wall Egalitarian Prayer Space

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Netanyahu and Steinitz at a Likud party meeting, 2017.
Netanyahu and Steinitz at a Likud party meeting, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz approved the work to expand the mixed gender prayer space at the Western Wall even though committee member Religious Services Minister David Azoulay has never seen a draft version of the decision.

On Tuesday, the government submitted its response concerning the petition by the Betzedek nonprofit organization against the decision. The committee operates under the authority of the Antiquities Law and is responsible for approving work in a religious antiquities site. The purpose of the work is to expand and make accessible the Reform prayer space despite the opposition of ultra–Orthodox and other right–wing Orthodox religious groups.

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The crisis began in the summer when Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who was a member by law, resigned because of her “conscience” which prevented her from approving the work. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked resigned too. They were replaced by Netanyahu and Steinitz. Azoulay also asked to resign, but his request was denied.

People praying at the Western Wall, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

The committee convened for a meeting in July, which Azoulay did not attend. The discussion ended without a decision and a few days later Netanyahu and Steinitz decided to prepare a draft decision approving the work. Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman tried to contact Azoulay by phone to update him. Braverman did not provide the version of the decision to the ministry and published the decision as approved without Azoulay knowing. According to cabinet regulations, Azoulay could have requested an additional discussion.

In the state’s response, the State Prosecutor’s Office claims that this deficiency does not invalidate the decision because Azoulay chose not to attend and stated that he opposed it, so his position was in the minority in any case.

Daniel Robins and Hilik Gutman, the attorneys representing Betzedek in their petition against the government, said in response: “The state admitted to its failure and mistakes. The state is responsible for a long list of [underhanded tricks]. First and foremost, of them is the convening of the meeting of the committee without responding to the letter of Minister Azoulay at all, who asked to resign from the committee. These actions show the different attitude toward other members of the committee, for example Minister Miri Regev and Minister Ayelet Shaked, who asked to resign from the committee.”

“The state’s second mistake is: The proposed decision was not distributed at all to the religious services minister and this was after the fateful vote was held without the presence of the minister and while they held a telephone vote that is reserved only for exceptional and extreme events.”

Religious Services Minister David Azoulay.Credit: Amit Shabi

“The third mistake, even after it was made [the illegal decision] its content was not distributed at all according to law to the all the members of the committee, and Minister Azoulay learned of it only from the media. Intentional compartmentalization was done here of Minister Azoulay in order to prevent a public discussion of the decision.”

“We are of the opinion that the High Court of Justice will order the cancellation of this illegal decision,” said the lawyers.