Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to reassure Diaspora Jewish leaders that redesign plans remain on track for the Western Wall plaza that will allow greater scope there for non-Orthodox prayer services.
In a June 27 meeting with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and with Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Netanyahu made clear he stands behind the redesign, first proposed by Sharansky, despite objections from some in the Israeli religious establishment.
“We asked the prime minister if he was committed to the plan and he was loud and clear in saying: ‘absolutely,’” Jacobs told the Forward. Sharansky came out of the meeting with a similar impression. “He left no doubt that he is moving toward a strategic solution based on my proposal,” said the ex-Soviet dissident in an interview after the meeting.
Supporters of the plan, who feared that Netanyahu’s initial enthusiasm over Sharansky’s plan could dissipate in light of political difficulties at home, felt reassured. “I was very optimistic at the beginning and now I’m still optimistic but you also have to be realistic,” said Sharansky.
Under the plan Sharansky envisions, the large plaza running up to the kotel, as the Western Wall is also known, will be divided into two equal areas: one managed under Orthodox rules mandating separate prayer areas for men and women, and another in which egalitarian prayer of all denominations will be allowed.
The reconfiguration of Judaism’s most revered site will be implemented in two phases. The first, which planners hope will be completed within a year, will include re-directing foot traffic to the Wall into one joint entry-way, which will then be divided into the two sections. The egalitarian section will be open 24 hours a day seven days a week. The second phase, which requires complex permit procedures regarding archeological excavations and Muslim controlled areas, will take another year. When the second phase is complete, the entire kotel plaza will increase in size.
The pressing question still has to do with the interim period until Sharansky’s plan is implemented. Women of the Wall, a group that prays together regularly at the kotel, where formal prayer in unison by women is now banned, intend to pray at the kotel on the first day of every Jewish calendar month even before a final settlement in the area is put in place. Orthodox leaders, who now have monopoly control over the kotel, condemn such prayer as a violation of the Torah.
Netanyahu has set up a three-member committee, made up of representatives of the cabinet secretary and the attorney general to come up with a way to prevent these monthly prayers from turning violent. Sharansky made clear that this committee is not intended to replace his proposal but only to deal with the short-term legal and practical challenges presented by recent court rulings that allowed women to pray freely at the Wall.
The upcoming months will test the fragile status quo at the kotel. Uneventful monthly prayers and progress on the implementation of the Sharansky outline could pave the way to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, although all parties are acutely aware of the fact that political hurdles could still undermine progress. “We will hold everyone accountable to their promises,” said Jacobs. “We need to keep our eyes on the prize.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.