What was Netanyahu thinking cancelling the Kotel deal?

The problem is that Netanyahu is dealing not only with the Israeli electorate but with world Jewry, which is already distancing itself from the Jewish state.

Netanyahu at Western Wall (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu at Western Wall
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When it comes to construction, no one seems to be happy these days with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Last week it was the settlers who felt Netanyahu had fooled them, and was holding up construction of Jewish homes in the West Bank. Netanyahu was willing to build for the Palestinians in Kalkilya, it seemed, but not for the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria.
On Sunday, Netanyahu canceled another Jewish construction project, although this one was designed to preserve worldwide Jewish unity, not just a Jewish presence over the Green Line. Ironically, the Reform and Conservative movements, which suffered a devastating blow from the prime minister, could have used some advice from settlers on how to get things built in this country.
First, they would have learned, you identify a hilltop. Then you pitch a tent and start farming the land. After a few weeks, you sneak in a caravan. Then a water tank. Next an electrical line. By the time the authorities figure out what is happening, there are already facts on the ground. People are living in multiple caravans, vineyards are being groomed, homes are being built, and kids are going to a makeshift school. By that point there is no choice but to legalize what until then had been illegal.
The Reform and Conservative movements did the opposite. They tried to get everything at once – the construction of a new egalitarian prayer plaza at the southern section of the Western Wall, the establishment of a committee to be jointly chaired by representatives of the movements and the government, and the construction of a new entrance to the Kotel, one that would include the egalitarian prayer space and the current Kotel plaza.
What the movements learned on Sunday is that in Israel you work from the bottom up. First you build and then seek recognition. Had they worked this way, they would have had an upgraded prayer plaza by now and possibly even a new entrance to the Kotel.
For the haredim, the major problem with the original Kotel deal of January 2016 was the establishment of the joint government-movements committee, which they viewed as de facto recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism signaling the opening of the floodgates for a progressive takeover of religion in the country.
The “settler” route would have been slower, but in the long term probably more effective.
Don’t misunderstand. As regular readers of this paper know, The Jerusalem Post is a strong proponent of religious freedom, and believes in the separation of religion and state in Israel. Establishment of a pluralistic prayer plaza at the Kotel as well as government recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism are both long overdue religious reforms.
Nevertheless, there is a difference between doing what is right and what is smart. Right was to demand everything at once. Smart would have been to follow the bottom-up playbook.
With that said, the movements cannot be blamed for what happened. Why would they have thought the plan wouldn’t go through? The cabinet had voted and approved the deal a year-and-a-half ago, and even after it got stuck, they had Netanyahu’s word that he would see it through. In one meeting a few months back, Netanyahu had told leaders of the movements that if he wanted to get something done, he usually succeeded. “Look at the gas deal,” he told them. “In the end, I got it through.”
But they were hoodwinked. The gas deal was important for Netanyahu, but at no point did it endanger his coalition as the Kotel deal did. At no point did the haredi parties warn him that if the natural gas framework moved forward, they would bolt his coalition.
Netanyahu’s handling of this whole situation remains a mystery. The Israeli public has been told for years that no one knows America or American Jewry like the prime minister and his ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer. This should have been a cakewalk.
But Netanyahu surprised everyone on Sunday when he decided to hold a vote to cancel the Kotel deal. Adding fuel to the fire was the Ministerial Committee on Legislation’s vote that same day to advance a conversion bill that would ban private conversions in Israel. (By the way, don’t believe the Prime Minister’s Office that all it did was “freeze” the deal. To overturn Sunday’s decision, the cabinet would need to vote again. If something requires a new vote it is not frozen. It is canceled.) Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency and a close associate of Netanyahu, was in the Prime Minister’s Office earlier that day, but he was taken completely by surprise. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, was on a plane on the way to Israel. No one saw this coming.
A number of prominent Jews have asked this week: Why didn’t Netanyahu gather the movement leaders in his office, explain to them how his coalition was at risk, and then beg for forgiveness and patience? Why didn’t he use the opportunity to explain how much he wanted to give them what they asked for, but that the haredim had him cornered and were going to topple his coalition? In the best-case scenario, the movements would have understood. At the very least, he would have eased the severity of the blow.
So what he was thinking? By Thursday afternoon – despite making multiple public appearances – he still had not commented on the Kotel brouhaha, preferring silence over an explanation.
It could be that what happened to Netanyahu with the Kotel deal is the same as what happened to him a few times in recent years: power got to his head.
He thought he could get away without building a new settlement for the evacuees of Amona until the settler movement revolted, forcing him to quickly initiate construction. He thought he could sneak the approval of new Palestinian homes in Area C under the radar, until his ministers rebelled.
The same seems to have happened here. There are two possibilities – one, Netanyahu didn’t expect the uproar his decision would cause because, like many politicians who have been in power for many years, he has become disconnected from the people. Or two, he knew there would be an uproar but he simply didn’t care. The woes of the Diaspora, he signaled with his decision, are not of importance to him.
The problem is that Netanyahu is dealing not only with the Israeli electorate but with world Jewry, which is already distancing itself from the Jewish state. Support for Israel is declining within the American Jewish community. A demonstration of religious pluralism in Israel like the implementation of the original Kotel deal could have been crucial in reaffirming those ties. Now the opposite is happening, giving young Jews another great excuse not to have anything to do with the State of Israel.
Having said that, there still is time to undo some of the damage. Netanyahu should immediately initiate construction at Robinson’s Arch and upgrade the plaza to the size and quality of what was originally envisioned for egalitarian prayer. He should then build a new entrance to the Kotel, and simply ignore haredi objections. The movements will have to give up getting a joint committee with the government for now, but they will be close. In the interim, that will have to suffice.
Another important development would be for the haredim to do some soul-searching. While I know this will likely not happen, it is necessary. I understand they are scared, fearful that state recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism will chip away at their already crumbling communities.
But they are behaving like a deer caught in the headlights. They need to realize that they have a responsibility that transcends their fear of losing power (as does Netanyahu). The unity of our people is at stake. They can’t control how Jews in America, Europe, Australia or anywhere in the world practice their faith, but they can decide to be more accepting, more welcoming, and more tolerant.
There are enough enemies of Israel and the Jews that we need to confront. For heaven’s sake, let’s stop destroying ourselves from within. It will soon be too late.