Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a memorial ceremony honoring the fallen of Israel's Six Day War in Latrun on Monday June 5, 2017..
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is telling leaders of US Jewry angered by Sunday’s government vote on the Western Wall prayer space and on the conversion issue that he faced a choice of either supporting the moves or losing his government, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
That was also the message he relayed on Thursday to a high-level delegation from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, whose members flew in for the day to discuss their concerns with Netanyahu and what they are hearing from their constituents.
Officials who have talked with Netanyahu about the issue in recent days say he is aware of the gravity of the decisions and the strain they have caused with American Jewry, but that the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties gave him an ultimatum. Netanyahu stressed in these meetings that he is going ahead with plans to enlarge the platform for egalitarian prayer at Robinson’s Arch at the Western Wall and that work there will not stop.
The haredi objection to the Western Wall compromise that was frozen on Sunday had less to do with the actual establishment of an egalitarian prayer space and more to do with the compromise hammered out in January 2016, but never implemented.
Under that compromise, the site was to be administered by a committee that would include representatives from each of the liberal streams of Judaism, the Jewish Federation of North America, the Jewish Agency and the government. This arrangement, haredim fear, would chip away at their exclusive administrative control of the site.
Netanyahu’s office did not issue any communiqué following the meeting with AIPAC leaders, nor did the premier publicly discuss the matter on Thursday. Despite having attended a number of public events this week, including one on Thursday at the Hatzerim Air Base near Beersheba, he has not publicly commented on the matter.
One message he is getting from Diaspora leaders is that as distasteful as the Western Wall issue is for many segments of their constituents, the Israel-Diaspora relationship will take a turn for even worse if the conversion bill goes through. That legislation would give the haredi- controlled Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over conversions in Israel.
Although that bill would not affect the eligibility to gain Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return for those converted abroad by Conservative and Reform rabbis, there is concern that the Western Wall decision could have a spillover effect and eventually change that situation as well.
At this week’s Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting, a number of representatives said the Western Wall issue was “symbolic,” a “slap in the face,” and a “capitulation to the haredim,” and that the conversion bill could lead to Israel determining that their own grandchildren are not Jewish.
The delegation – which included AIPAC president Lillian Pinkus, incoming president Mort Fridman and managing director Richard Fishman – met with Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky before meeting with Netanyahu. They also met with Education and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett.
The delegates returned to the US on Thursday.
AIPAC has been flooded with calls from constituents, some asking what the organization is going to do and others telling it not to get involved. The organization has also heard from the offices of some US legislators, saying they have received angry inquiries from voters in their districts.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, is scheduled to fly on Friday to Strasbourg to take part in a memorial ceremony on Saturday for former German chancellor Helmut Kohl who died last week.
Numerous world leaders are expected to attend the event, with speeches delivered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and former US president Bill Clinton.
Kohl was a key figure in European integration and oversaw German reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Strasbourg is home to the European Parliament.
On hearing of his death, Netanyahu issued a statement saying Kohl was one of Israel’s “greatest friends,” and that he was “completely dedicated to its security.”
“Kohl was the leader who united Germany with a determined and steady hand,” he said. “His admiration for Israel and Zionism found expression in my many meetings with him and in his resolute stand in favor of Israel, which he constantly presented in Europe and in international forums.”
Netanyahu is scheduled to return on Sunday.