Israel’s High Court Warns Government: Enough Foot-dragging on Western Wall Deal

Government slapped with June 4 deadline for responding to petitions seeking to end the impasse on the egalitarian prayer plaza

By Judy Maltz

The High Court of Justice made it clear on Friday that it won’t stand for further government procrastination in resolving the conflict over the egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The court notified the government that June 4 would be its last and final deadline for responding to three separate petitions that seek to end the impasse. Over the past six months, the government has requested and received numerous extensions in its deadline to respond to these petitions.

The most significant petition was submitted by the Reform and Conservative movements, along with Women of the Wall – the multi-denominational feminist prayer group. In their suit, submitted in September, the plaintiffs demanded that the government either follow through with its promise to build them a permanent platform for egalitarian prayer services at the southern expanse of the Western Wall, or alternatively, re-divide the existing gender-segregated area at the northern expanse to make room for mixed prayer services.

The government had approved a plan to create a permanent egalitarian prayer plaza at the southern expanse of the Western Wall in January 2016. But under pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has resisted moving ahead with the plan. The ultra-Orthodox deem Conservative and Reform Judaism illegitimate movements and have threatened to bring down the government should they receive official recognition from the state.

More than a month ago, Netanyahu appointed Tzachi Hanegbi, a member of his government and close confidante, as the minister in charge of a new round of negotiations aimed at overcoming ultra-Orthodox objections to the Western Wall plan. The move was interpreted as a sign that Netanyahu was keen to resolve the crisis. Yet since he was appointed, Hanegbi has not convened a new round of negotiations or even set a date for holding them, Haaretz has learned.

Around the same time that Hanegbi’s appointment was announced, Netanyahu also persuaded Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to extend his stint by another year so that he, too, could participate in resolving the crisis. Sharansky had drafted the blueprint for the Western Wall deal four years ago, at Netanyahu’s request.

A second petition, submitted by members of a feminist prayer group that broke off from Women of the Wall, demands that the government lift what it deems to be an unlawful ban on Torah-readings in the women’s section of the Western Wall. The group, which calls itself Original Women of the Wall, includes some of the founders of Women of the Wall. Its members oppose moving their monthly prayer service to a new egalitarian section and insist on continuing to pray at the women’s section of the Western Wall, as they have for the past 28 years.

A third petition was submitted by Liba, an Orthodox group that opposes allocating any space to the Reform and Conservative movements at the Western Wall. In its suit, the group claimed that the government did not have the authority to approve such a decision.

Because all the petitions pertain to prayer regulations at the Western Wall, the High Court decided several months ago to bundle them together.

Responding to the High Court order, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, said: “This is a clear message to the government that it is high time to resolve the Kotel controversy and to allow all Jews free access and freedom to pray at the holy site. On Passover eve, we urge the government to show leadership and announce the full implementation of the Western Wall deal that was already approved by the government.”