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As Western Wall Deadline Approaches, Prayer Activists Fight for Face Time with Government

Since Haredi threats to break with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau’s goernment torpedoed a plan for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall about two months ago, the Israeli government has been trying to craft a compromise deal that will satisfy both sides before a June 1 deadline. But so far government representatives have met just once, for less than an hour, with the activists who support the original plan, and only one more such meeting is in the works.

The first week of May, leaders of the Reform and Conservative Movements and the Women of the Wall, the activist prayer group advocating for female prayer rights at the holy Jewish site, met briefly with government representative David Sharan to demand the implementation of the original plan, a source in one of the non-Orthodox movements said. The week the deadline expires, a mission of Reform and Conservative leaders is coming from the United States to try to pressure the government, a development first reported by Haaretz.

Now, as the two-month window for deliberations draws to a close, the non-Orthodox movements and Women of the Wall are waiting to learn if the government will keep or scrap its promise, or extend its negotiations with the Haredi parties that object to the plan.

Anat Hoffman, director of Women of the Wall, said that she anticipates that the government will respond soon, in part because of the pending visit from the American delegation of Reform and Conservative leaders. Hoffman said she didn’t think the government would need to extend the deadline for another two months, although she didn’t rule out the possibility of an extension altogether.

Representatives of both American movements declined to comment for this article.

“Look, I’m a marathon runner,” Hoffman said. “It has been so long, with so many ups and downs and what a shame that it has taken so long to fix something so trivial. But it will be fixed and I will live to see it.”

The government announced its plan for the Western Wall, or Kotel as its known in Hebrew, in January in a historic deal between the Israeli government, the non-Orthodox movements, Women of the Wall and ultra-Orthodox representatives to create an egalitarian prayer space in the southern portion of the Western Wall, an area known as Robinson’s Arch. The deal was meant to put to rest a decades-long dispute over prayer rights for women and non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall, currently under Haredi control.

Two months after the announcement, the agreement hit a snag when Minister of Religious Services David Azoulay, under pressure from Haredi communities, refused to sign the regulations to implement the proposal. Netanyahu called for a 60-day discussion period to reexamine it, appointing Sharan, then chief of staff, to helm the conversations. Netanyahu appointed Sharan Cabinet Secretary this week, but he will continue his work to find a solution to the issue of the egalitarian plaza, said an Israeli official.

The Haredi parties object especially to the plan for a joint entrance to both the egalitarian plaza and the traditional gender-segregated section, according to Haaretz. For the non-Orthodox parties, the shared entrance is a symbol of equality between the Jewish streams, and non-negotiable. The Haredi parties want separate entrances.

The Haredi parties also don’t want to include Reform and Conservative representative on the board of governors that will administer the egalitarian plaza. And they want to ensure that the funding stream does not come through the state budget but rather a non-governmental organization or quasi-governmental organization such as the Jewish agency, said Haaretz.

One factor that could influence the current discussions is the shifting political ground in the Israeli government. This week, Avigdor Lieberman, of the secular ultra-right Yisrael Beytenu party, joined Netanyahu’s governing coalition, expanding its razor-thin majority of 61 seats to a slightly more comfortable 67.

On the one hand, this could increase the likelihood that Netanyahu will be able to push through the original plan, since he no longer depends on Haredi parties to accomplish government policy. But on the other hand, Lieberman has indicated that he won’t take a confrontational stance with the Haredi parties.

According to the Jerusalem Post, under the terms of the coalition agreement Yisrael Beytenu will have to support a bill to ban Reform and Conservative Jews from using the state ritual baths for conversion ceremonies, said Knesset Member Uri Maklev of the Haredi United Torah Judaism. That bill was introduced after the Supreme Court ruled that the ban, currently in place, is illegal. Maklev said that Yisrael Beytenu will also support other Haredi legislation.

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at [email protected] or on Twitter @NaomiZeveloff

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