The Prime Minister's Office issued its first response Monday after criticism from the Jewish Agency and American Jewish organizations about the decision to freeze plans for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.
"Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu believes it is important that every Jew can pray at the Western Wall," said Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman.
Braverman, who has been handling the Western Wall issue for the government in recent months, added that along with the decision to suspend the Kotel deal, Netanyahu instructed his cabinet Sunday to expedite preparations for work on the southern part of the Wall so that all Jews can pray at the Kotel.
"The prime minister instructed myself and Minister Tzachi Hanegbi to continue the dialogue to try and reach a solution," Braverman said, adding that he recommended that anyone trying to exploit the situation "be precise about the facts."
Several leading members of Netanyahu's government criticized Sunday's cabinet decision.
Education Minister and Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett, whose party has a strong base among Orthodox voters, said he supported a compromise plan for an egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall, calling its suspension a mistake.
But in a video posted on his Facebook page, Bennett called the vocal reaction from both sides excessive.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman spoke out against both the Kotel move and ministers' support for a bill that would strengthen the Chief Rabbinate’s control over conversion in Israel.
He called the steps “religious coercion and an effort to turn Israel from a Zionist state into a state of halakha,” referring to Jewish religious law.
Speaking to Knesset members from his Yisrael Beiteinu party (whose main base of support is Russian-speaking Israelis), Lieberman called on moderate right-wingers to join forces with his party on the conversion issue. He called for local chief rabbis to be given authority to set up conversion courts – a major concern for Jews from the former Soviet Union, a considerable number of whom are not considered Jewish according to halakha.
“I remind you that until the mid-1990s city rabbis were authorized to perform conversions," said Lieberman. "There are 350,000 people living in the State of Israel who are not halakhically Jewish. Do we want to perpetuate the problem or solve it? We haven’t come to threaten crises but to avoid crises. There is a crisis here that doesn’t contribute to stability among the governing coalition partners, and I hope we solve it quickly.”
The cabinet voted Sunday to suspend the plan to create a permanent space for mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall. Later that day, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted to advance a bill that would deny recognition of conversions performed in Israel but outside the state-sanctioned Orthodox system.
Both decisions were reached following pressure from Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.
One minister who attended Sunday’s meeting said the cabinet’s decision made it clear that the suspension of the Kotel plan would not be lifted without an additional cabinet resolution. Work on the plaza would continue, the cabinet decided, but Regional Cooperation Minister Hanegbi and Braverman would also begin negotiations over a new plan.
At the cabinet meeting, Interior Minister Arye Dery – also head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party – said the original cabinet decision approving the egalitarian prayer space passed because the ultra-Orthodox parties had not noticed what it provided for.
The ultra-Orthodox parties could have lived with an unofficial solution, he said, but from the moment representatives of the Reform movement filed a petition on the matter with the High Court of Justice and created a need for an official state position, the ultra-Orthodox parties could not accept any compromise, Dery added.
“Don’t accuse the Haredim,” Dery said. “We never initiated any decision on the issue, but have only reacted to legal challenges.”
The Ministerial Committee for Legislation's decision to back the conversion bill normally indicates the governing coalition's support for the proposed legislation. Every minister on the committee voted in favor of the bill except for Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver (Yisrael Beiteinu), who later appealed the committee’s decision.
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