Reform Leader: Cabinet Pledged to Nix Transfer of Kotel Prayer Area to Settler Group Elad

Rabbi Rick Jacobs says promise could end crisis of confidence between Israeli government and non-Orthodox movement over prayer deal at Western Wall.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli cabinet intend to revoke the controversial agreement to give the right-wing Elad-City of David Foundation control of the area of the Western Wall that had been earmarked for non-Orthodox prayer.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism movement, told Haaretz on Friday that Cabinet Secretary Avihai Mandelblit had phoned him to pledge that the cabinet would override the agreement with Elad “on Sunday or Monday.” Mandelblit said that the government would be the only “partner” to arrangements at the designated non-Orthodox prayer area, Jacobs said.

The Reform leader added that Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennet had also phoned to assure him of his support for rescinding the Elad transfer.

The news, first reported in Haaretz, that while the government was hammering out the details of the so-called “Sharansky Agreement” on non-Orthodox access to the southern part of the Western Wall, the government-owned Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem had entered into an agreement with Elad to manage the same area had shocked non-Orthodox leaders in America and created a serious crisis of confidence between their movements and the Israeli cabinet.

In the wake of a sharply worded letter in which leaders of the Reform and Conservative movement said they were “shocked and dismayed” at the developments and that transfer of the site to Elad would effectively scuttle the Sharansky compromise. The two sides then met in Washington this week on the sidelines of Netanyahu’s visit to the United States.

The compromise proposed by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky had aimed to end the standoff created by the efforts of Women of the Wall to gain unfettered access to the Western Wall. The Elad Foundation, which devotes itself to “strengthening the Jewish character of Jerusalem”, has been long criticized for its eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem and for conducting controversial archeological excavations aimed at highlighting Jerusalem’s Jewish history.

Jacobs quoted Mandelblit as assuring him that the cabinet has the authority to override any agreement with Elad and that it would be doing so early next week. “He said that the government would be our only partner at the proposed site, and that there is no way that any private management would be appropriate.”

Jacobs said that all the government officials involved in negotiations over the new prayer site had denied any previous knowledge of the arrangement with Elad. But, he added, the reports of the Elad move “called into question whether we could reach any kind of agreement with the government.”

Jacobs said “we will now have to get back to the hard and important work of working out remaining details, and do it with a sense of urgency, trust and goodwill,” Jacobs said.

Screenshot from URJ Biennial's Twitter page.