Israel's High Court of Justice.
(photo credit: ISRAELTOURISM / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected a request by the High Court of Justice to implement the recently frozen Western Wall cabinet decision, while the State Attorney’s Office argued the court does not have the power to compel the government to do so.
The prime minister and the state were responding to an order the High Court issued earlier this month requesting that the government reconsider the suspension of the cabinet resolution, which had been the product of a compromise agreement. The order came in response to petitions to the court by the Reform and Conservative movements and the Women of the Wall group, which asked that either the January 2016 agreement be implemented or an egalitarian prayer section be established in the central prayer area of the site.
In its response to the court, the State Attorney’s Office explained that Netanyahu had “considered the circumstances of the issue and decided not to bring the Western Wall agreement
for an additional hearing in the cabinet.”
The state also argued that the decision to suspend the agreement should not be seen as a retraction of a legally binding promise, saying the issue was strictly one of governmental policy and not the purview of the court.
“The government has broad discretion regarding the manner of deciding the matter, subject, of course, to its obligations under the law,” the state response said.
It claimed, therefore, that there was no legal problem in its decision to suspend the agreement, as long as the government was fulfilling its policies. That was a reference to upgrades the government intends to make to the current egalitarian section at the southern end of the Western Wall.
The Reform Movement described Netanyahu’s decision as an “unprecedented lack of good faith,” and contempt for Reform and Conservative Jews and for Women of the Wall.
In January 2016, the cabinet approved a resolution whereby a state-recognized egalitarian prayer section would be created at the southern end of the Western Wall. The section would share an entrance with the main plaza and be run by a committee that included representatives from the Reform and Conservative movements and Women of the Wall. The idea was hailed at the time for being the first formal participation of progressive Jewish representatives in an official state body.
Although the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties allowed the resolution to pass, they quickly reneged when prominent rabbis, including both chief rabbis, and the haredi media opened up a withering attack on haredi political leaders for allowing the deal to be approved.
The plan was indefinitely suspended in June of this year by a second cabinet vote.
The High Court of Justice is now hearing a petition from the progressive Jewish denominations and Women of the Wall, which demands either the implementation of the original agreement or the establishment of an egalitarian prayer area at the main Western Wall prayer site.
A decision is expected by January.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements in Israel reacted with fury to comments made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which indicated the movements were clandestinely recognized by the state through the now abandoned Western Wall agreement.
At a briefing in New York with reporters on Monday, Netanyahu said if the issue was merely one of finding an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, it would have been solved by now.
But, he said, a clause in the agreement regarding administration of the site – which would have included representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements and the Women of the Wall – was interpreted as formal recognition, which caused the difficulties with the haredi parties in his coalition.
The prime minister’s comments mirrored those made by senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office in June when the agreement was canceled. Officials claimed they warned the progressive denominations that boasting about the state recognition inherent in the agreement would endanger its implementation.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform Movement in Israel, said the prime minister’s comments demonstrated that he had decided to join “the wave of haredi incitement against millions of Reform and Conservative Jews.”
Kariv also noted that Netanyahu had been involved in every detail of the deal, had celebrated its approval and demanded credit for it as well.
“The Reform Movement does not clandestinely demand recognition but rather openly and publicly,” said Kariv.
“The prime minister has shown a lack of leadership regarding the Western Wall, and political weakness.
And in order to hide this he is choosing to attack the Reform Movement,” said Kariv, adding that Netanyahu should find ways of rebuilding trust with Diaspora Jewry “and not to deepen the damage he and his government have done.”
Director of the Masorti Movement in Israel Yizhar Hess accused Netanyahu of “distorting reality.”
“It was this government of Israel, the prime minister and his people who proposed to us this model of agreement,” he said. Those proposals included “explicit emphasis on the prima facie advantages of the agreement regarding the issue of recognition, in light of the fact that we would have official representatives on the administrative council for the site,” Hess said. “To present this now as our manipulation is a new record in fake news.”