Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to consider liberalising access to Judaism’s Western Wall, officials said on Wednesday, citing concern that police-enforced Orthodox controls on women worshippers alienate Jews abroad.
A compromise proposed by a Netanyahu envoy would expand the Jerusalem prayer site’s plaza, where worshippers are segregated by sex in accordance with Orthodox ritual practice, to add a mixed-gender section for other denominations of Judaism.
The plan poses risks for Netanyahu: further alienation of ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose representatives have been excluded from his new government, and a possible backlash by Palestinians against changes at the site, below the al-Aqsa mosque compound.
The envoy, former Israeli cabinet minister Natan Sharansky, sought backing for the idea from Jewish leaders in the United States this week and would present it to Netanyahu upon his return, officials said.
A vestige of two Roman-era Jewish temples, the Western Wall came under Israel’s control in the 1967 Middle East war when it captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
As one of Judaism’s holiest sites, it is the focus of worship and life-cycle events for world Jewry, but ceremonies are by law kept Orthodox - a doctrine dominant among religious Israelis but which has only minority following in the diaspora.
The rift has been laid bare by a group called “Women of the Wall”, which includes Americans, and whose monthly attempts to conduct Jewish rites which are an Orthodox male preserve at the site have brought a police crackdown.
Netanyahu, a secular right-winger, is wary of losing diaspora support for Israel at a time of mounting international pressure over its stalled peacemaking with the Palestinians, an official briefed on Sharansky’s mission told Reuters.
“There is no doubt that’s why Netanyahu asked Sharansky to find a compromise,” said the official, who asked not to be identified before the proposal was formally announced.