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Shas Head Arye Dery Can’t Walk Away From a Kotel Deal He Helped Make

Yizhar Hess
Yizhar Hess
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Shas Chairman Arye Dery, in August.
Shas Chairman Arye Dery, in August.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Yizhar Hess
Yizhar Hess

Is Arye Dery now raising funds to fight the Western Wall compromise? Is he saying that the compromise brokered a few years ago was simply atrocious, an unconscionable wrong that would have brought down disaster on the Jewish people?

The following is an as-yet-untold story about the final moments of the negotiations over that agreement and Dery’s key role in it.

It was noon on the last Friday of January 2016. Two days later, the cabinet was scheduled to vote on the agreement. Four exhausting years of negotiations, hundreds of meetings, dozens of arguments, numerous crises and even two (near) blow-ups were about to end with an historic vote, the aim of which was to bring an end to one of the most unnecessary and frustrating arguments that Jerusalem has ever known.

Everyone was tense, for the following Sunday, when the cabinet had its regular meeting, was to be Avichai Mendelblit’s last day as cabinet secretary. He and Natan Sharansky together had been overseeing the negotiations, which involved nothing less than a kind of shuttle diplomacy.

The Haredi representatives had refused to sit in the same room with us – the Masorti Movement – of which I was then the director general – the Reform movement and the Women of the Wall. Mendelblit, Sharansky and their aides had to shuttle between us.

Members of the Women of the Wall display the Torah scroll covers as they gather for the new month prayer in the women's section at the Western WallCredit: Maya Alleruzzo/AP

At times, they met on the same day with us and with the rabbi of the Western Wall and leaders of the Haredi fractions that were then part of the government coalition (Dery, Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni).

I remember nearly every minute of that Friday because that week we had worked around the clock to nail down all the necessary understandings in advance of the cabinet vote. Dozens of drafts had been passed from one side to the other throughout the four years of negotiations, at least half of them in that last week.

That is the nature of negotiations: The final moments are the most fragile. You no longer speak about principles or about the major issues at stake. Rather, you focus on the smallest details in the footnotes, of which there were many in the Western Wall compromise.

In the eyes of the casual observer they may look too trivial to merit consideration, but that’s not the case for the concerned parties. Seasoned negotiators know that a sloppily worded footnote can turn the meaning of a clause upside-down. After four years of negotiations, all of the parties were highly skilled.

At 12 noon on that Friday, as I was making my way to my car laden down with Shabbat shopping, my cellphone rang. On the other end was the senior aide to the cabinet secretary. There’s a problem, he said, and without hesitating I laid all my bags down on the sidewalk.

Dery was asking for a single word to be changed in the “deciders’ agreement” (which is what they call a draft the cabinet votes). “I know that it’s the last minute, but I don’t want it to hold up everything. Would you be willing?” he asked.

I was furious both at the timing (for Dery, like us, was familiar with each and every word, and could have raised this objection earlier) and at the change he was demanding. The word that was troubling Dery was “adopting.”

He didn’t want it to be written that the government was adopting the compromise, because that gave the agreement a formal character. Instead, he wanted it to be written that the government was doing no more than “implementing” the compromise.

I had good reason to be furious. We had compromised on so many issues to reach this historic decision (some of which I, in retrospect, regret). It was unacceptable to be asked to make yet another compromise at the last minute.

I took a deep breath. I put in a call to Gilad Kariv (my counterpart at the time from the Reform Movement), and we brought Anat Hoffman (chairwoman of the Women of the Wall) into the conversation. Once the three of us had unleashed our rage on the innocent emissary, we acceded to the request: “adopting” would not appear in the final document, so long as it would be implemented.

I assumed that there would be another phone call that day, and indeed there was another call. At four in the afternoon (on a Friday!), my cellphone rang. This time, it was Mendelblit himself on the other end of the line. It being so close to the beginning of Shabbat, we cut short the mutual salutations (I had learned to like this smart man over the course of four years of negotiations).

He said, please send me, now, before Shabbat begins, a letter signed by the three of you, which states that you accept the Western Wall compromise, with all of its appendices and attendant ordinances; a complete and final acceptance. Mendelblit did not have to explain why he needed this letter. With the help of this letter, he thwarted another attempt to delay approval on Sunday.

Indeed, on Sunday the cabinet voted to approve the compromise by a large majority. The Haredi ministers voted against it, as had been agreed upon in advance. It was a symbolic vote, which passed without any threat to the coalition.

Rabbi Dery, you are permitted to say that you agreed then but that you have now changed your mind. But excuse me, do not mock us, or your voters. And do not threaten the prime minister, Naftali Bennett. He won’t give us a single comma more than what you yourself have already given.

Dr. Yizhar Hess is the vice-chairman of the World Zionist Organization

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