Livni, Bennett in War of Words Over Women of the Wall

Religious Affairs Minister Bennett says Justice Minister Livni has scuttled a compromise plan over women's prayer at Jerusalem's Western Wall he claims is near completion.

Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett has come out against Justice Minister Tzipi Livni for getting involved in his attempts to formulate a compromise on women's prayer at the Kotel, claiming that Livni is damaging negotations just “to grab a newspaper headline.”

In a letter to Bennett on Wednesday, Livni said she would not support changes to the law governing holy sites that he is promoting to limit the activities of Women of the Wall at the Kotel in Jerusalem. Such amendments required the justice minister’s approval, she said.  

Bennett was surprised by Livni's statement, which reached the media before it reached him. In the wake of the media reports about Livni's words he issued a blunt and furious statement against the justice minister.

“Tzipi Livni,” he wrote in a response he published on his Facebook page, “'sent' me a letter in which she says she will not allow any Western Wall regulations to be instituted. She socked it to me. A headline on Channel 2. Wow. (Of course I didn’t receive any letter, it was after all a holiday and there isn’t an office that’s working. In other words, a media maneuver for beginners).”

Bennett claimed that in her statement, Livni harmed the chances of formulating a compromise with Women of the Wall and conducted herself – according to him – “like an elephant in a china shop.” He added: “I have conducted quite a lot of negotiations with the two sides and I had a basis for assuming we would succeed in reaching a compromise in which each side would concede a little and I would *not* have to institute regulations. I had hoped to reach this compromise in the coming days. Incidentally, this is the first time a minister of religious affairs has conducted talks with Women of the Wall.”

He continued: “Then along came Tzipi Livni. She announced in the media just a little while ago that she would not let me institute regulations. Indeed, it is within her power to do this in her capacity as justice minister. This of course undermines my ability to achieve the compromise. The regulations would have been my lever for achieving the hoped-for compromise.”

Bennett added: “Livni did not speak with me. She did not consult with me in order to understand where we stand in our delicate compromise efforts. She severely damaged the chance of reaching a compromise and as I’ve said, I didn’t really receive the letter she says she sent me. It’s all in order to get a newspaper headline. It’s a shame. This is not how a government minister in Israel should act. I hope she is conducting the negotiations with the Palestinians in a more serious way and not with spin.”

The wrangling between the two did not end after Bennett’s reply. Livni replied to him in a Facebook post: “Naftali Bennett, nu really!’ wrote the justice minister, mimicking the opening of his letter to her.

“Minister Bennett is upset," Livni wrote. "He says I didn’t consult him before I wrote a letter to him in which I clarified my position regarding women's prayer at the Western Wall. So Bennett, handsome is as handsome does: From the moment the storm about the Wall erupted until now, Minister Bennett has not called and has not updated me about the compromise attempts he claims to be making with regard to the issue, even though by law both of us are supposed to sign the regulations and therefore he has nothing to complain about except himself.”

Livni continued: “Bennett might be surprised to discover that I personally worship at an Orthodox synagogue and take these customs upon myself, and I admit it was hard for me to see them [the women] worshipping in a different way and to digest this, but I believe that the time is ripe – constitutionally and socially, culturally – to implement a tolerant and pluralist policy in the State of Israel. It must be added that the worship in question is in the area intended for women only. Thus, also from the perspective of different streams that do not segregate during worship, there is a certain compromise here that minimizes the possibility of hurt feelings. I believe that regulations in the matter of women’s worship at the Wall should be in the spirit of the court’s ruling – this is the pluralist and values-based compromise that must be accepted. I am not looking for fights and a decision among streams of Judaism. I aspire to mutual respect and I hope with my whole being that the joint regulations will manifest this.”

The regulations Bennett is working on contradict last month’s ruling by Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Sobel. Sobel ruled that the Women of the Wall’s donning of prayer shawls and phylacteries and reading from the Torah in the Western Wall’s women’s section is not against the law.

Sobel made the ruling in response to a petition by police against the decision by the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court to immediately and unconditionally release five women detained by police at the Western Wall Plaza last month.

The police made the arrest based on a previous opinion issued by the attorney general, in keeping with a High Court ruling, that prohibited women from wearing a prayer shawl or reading from the Torah at the plaza. But Sobel’s ruling stated that the women’s practices did not necessarily contradict what the law defines as “local custom” at the Western Wall.

Emil Salman