A man and woman pray at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall.
(photo credit: DAVID SHECHTER FOR THE JEWISH AGENCY FOR ISRAEL)
Plans to renovate the egalitarian prayer section of the Western Wall have still not been approved, after an administrative planning and construction committee requested that the Jerusalem Municipal Authority explain why it does not wish to deal with the issue.
The decision taken by the Regional Committee for Planning and Construction of the Finance Ministry represents a significant problem for both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been advancing the renovation, and new mayor of Jerusalem Moshe Lion, who may now get saddled with this contentious problem.
If the Regional Committee ultimately insists that the Jerusalem Municipal Authority approve or reject the plans, advancing the renovation will be extremely difficult since the haredi and national-religious parties have a majority on municipal committees and would likely vote against the upgrades.
Following the indefinite suspension of the comprehensive 2016 cabinet resolution to dramatically upgrade the existing egalitarian section of the Western Wall, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly announced that the government would go ahead with the physical upgrades of the agreement to assuage the anger of the Diaspora Jewish leadership after the plan was iced.
These plans have been held up however by political opposition in the government and administratively at the municipal level.
Former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat decided earlier this year to hand over authority to approve the plans from the Subcommittee for Planning and Construction in the Jerusalem Municipal Council, due to its haredi majority, to the Regional Committee for Planning and Construction of the Finance Ministry.
The regional committee is comprised of professional ministry civil servants, as well as some Jerusalem Municipal Council politicians, and was thought more likely to approve the plans.
But the committee expressed concerns about the legality of Barkat’s decision to pass the decision on to it.
Members of the regional committee will conduct an inspection of the egalitarian section of the Western Wall and the broader site on Wednesday, and have requested that the Jerusalem Municipal Authority provide an explanation as to why it sent the decision to the regional committee within two weeks.
Despite Netanyahu’s efforts to advance the upgrade, the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements, along with the Women of the Wall organization, have all insisted that physically renovating the site does not come close to the 2016 agreement, with the latter stating they will not use it for their new moon prayer services and will continue to use the women’s section in the central plaza instead.
Alongside the physical renovation, there were two other central components of the 2016 resolution, namely that the egalitarian site would be share 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 prime minister has nonetheless gone ahead with efforts to renovate the site in the hope that this will defuse the resentment felt by communities and leaders in North America at the suspension of the original plans.
The approval of the plans are thought to be the final bureaucratic hurdle for the upgrades.
The planned renovations are relatively modest, and consist mainly of extending the current prayer platform to reach the actual stones of the Western Wall on one level, as opposed to the current situation where a small, lower platform is the only place where the egalitarian section touches the Kotel.
The entrance to the site, and the stairs and causeway leading to it, will also be expanded.
Other minor physical upgrades will also be made to make the prayer area more aesthetically pleasing and suitable for prayer.