(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defended the actions of his government in freezing the Western Wall agreement of 2016, saying that “ideological elements” of the resolution had been delaying the implementation of physically upgrading the site.
Netanyahu was speaking on Tuesday by video to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America which took place in Los Angeles over the last few days.
The prime minister insisted that he remains committed to advancing a solution for progressive Jewish prayer at the Western Wall, and that an upgraded site would be ready by next year.
After the original plan was indefinitely frozen in June this year, the Prime Minister’s Office allocated some NIS 19 million to physically upgrade the existing facilities at the current site at the southern end of the Western Wall which is available for non-Orthodox prayer.
Netanyahu was referring to these plans when he told those gathered at the General Assembly that the upgraded site would be ready by next year.
“Israel is the home of all Jews and it must remain so,” averred the prime minister.
“I took on the issue of prayer arrangements at the Western Wall because I strongly believe that all Jews, without exception, should feel at home in Israel, he continued.
“What the government froze in June were only the most ideologically charged elements of the Western Wall Plan. They were holding up the practical elements of the plan hostage… We are moving forward with construction to do just that. I hope and I am working to make sure that this happens, that you will see the improved prayer space before the next GA.”
Two of the key elements of the original agreement, seen as critical by the progressive Jewish denominations to the deal, were that the egalitarian site would be part of the main Western Wall complex, sharing the same entrance as the central prayer plaza, and that representatives of the Reform and Conservative Movements, together with those of the Women of the Wall organization, would be members of the governing committee for the site.
The haredi political parties belatedly objected to these clauses after the agreement was approved, eventually leading to the indefinite suspension of the resolution in June this year, to the consternation of the Diaspora Jewish leadership.
Netanyahu nevertheless took aim at those who have criticized him for failing to implement the deal, saying that changes to the religious status quo in Israel had always happened “as a result of evolution and not revolution.”
“Despite the disagreements, despite a lot of distortions, and despite the disparaging remarks about me and my government, I remain committed to moving forward. I believe that the Jewish people are all one family, I believe that Israel is the home of all Jews and that all Jews should have access and prayer in the Kotel.”
Director of the Reform Movement in Israel Rabbi Gilad Kariv accused the prime minister of “speaking with two voices” and failing to apologize for the crisis the cancellation of the agreement caused with the Jewish leadership in North America.
“The government of Israel violated all of the commitments it made to world Jewry on the issue of religious pluralism and the Western Wall is just one example,” said Kariv.
“We are sure that the Jewish leadership in North America is unimpressed with the prime minister’s verbal games and public relations efforts and will continue to demand that he stand by his explicit commitments.”Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this article.