Pluralists outraged over Bennett ruling out Kotel deal

PM's broken promise called "strategic ticking time bomb that will harm relations between Israel and world Jewry."

 PRAYING AT Robinson’s Arch at the south end of  the Kotel, the section set aside for pluralistic prayer.  (photo credit: ROBERT SWIFT/FLASH90)
PRAYING AT Robinson’s Arch at the south end of the Kotel, the section set aside for pluralistic prayer.
(photo credit: ROBERT SWIFT/FLASH90)

Representatives of pluralist organizations and their supporters in the Knesset expressed anger and disappointment over the weekend at Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s telling The Jerusalem Post that his government will not be able to implement the plan to formally establish an egalitarian section at the Western Wall.

Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid vowed on November 8 that he would fight to ensure that the Western Wall agreement would be implemented by the time Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, who wrote the plan, leaves office on January 31. But Bennett said opposition within New Hope and his own Yamina Party was preventing its implementation.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai said that he and his Labor Party are still committed to the Western Wall agreement.

“We have made a public commitment to this plan and we will continue to work within the government and outside of it, together with our partners inside and outside the government, in order to implement this plan in the near future,” Shai said.

“We welcome any upgrade to the current egalitarian prayer platform, but this does not provide a full answer to the main issue, which is that there needs to be two prayer spaces which are equal in every regard.”

 A VIEW of the Kotel earlier this year. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) A VIEW of the Kotel earlier this year. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Blue and White MK Alon Tal, who is a Conservative Jew, expressed profound disappointment at the prime minister’s position. He said the vast majority of the coalition strongly favors implementation, and it is a core commitment in the platform of Blue and White.

“It is unimaginable to me that the present government, which does not include haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties, would not expeditiously implement the Kotel agreement that was approved by those parties just a few years ago,” Tal said.

“I did not expect a prime minister who had his bar mitzvah in an Israeli Masorti/Conservative synagogue to be part of the demonization of the non-Orthodox streams in Judaism by a small, extremist minority of the Israeli public,” he said.

“Bennett’s position constitutes a new, highly unfortunate development in the battle for religious freedom in Israel. It is surely one which I and many of my colleagues in the Knesset are not willing to accept.”

THE WOMEN of the Wall responded that they were disturbed and surprised by Bennett’s statement, because they were unaware of opposition to the Kotel framework among cabinet ministers.

“The prime minister should not take the Kotel framework off the table without a proper explanation,” the group said. “Millions of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora are waiting for the prime minister to tell them why he is shirking responsibility for a plan he supported in the past.”

Yizhar Hess, the former executive director and CEO of the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel, said he is “extremely disappointed” by what he called “a painful, gross violation of clear promises he made in the past.”

He said coalition party heads Lapid, Avigdor Liberman, Benny Gantz and Merav Michaeli also made such promises.“It is hard for me to believe that this ‘change government’ cannot find a way to implement the plan,” Hess said. “This is a strategic ticking time bomb that will harm relations between Israel and world Jewry.”

Israeli Reform Movement CEO Anna Kislanski said she was angry at what she called the government “surrendering to extremists” who oppose implementing the agreement.

“The eyes of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora are looking at the current government in hopes that it will implement a worthy compromise that will help all of the people of Israel and not surrender shamefully to violent bullies,” she said.

Asked why this government has not moved to put the 2016 plan into effect, which Bennett played a large part in drafting as Diaspora minister, calling it a “controversial topic in this coalition.”

“We knew in advance that we cannot advance everything,” he said. “We will only act with consensus….This government is meant to save the country and bring it back to function. It cannot fulfill everyone’s wishes.”

Bennett said that members of his own Yamina Party oppose the plan to expand the egalitarian Ezrat Israel section at the Southern Wall and create a joint management committee with leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements. Members of New Hope are against it as well.

“We are in a process of upgrading and enlarging and creating an even more respectable section,” he added.

The government plans to clear the boulder that fell in the egalitarian section in 2018, keeping worshipers at a distance from the wall, and to make other physical improvements, without enacting other parts of the Kotel compromise.

Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.