Natan Sharansky's plan to expand the non-Orthodox prayer site at the Western Wall could be set in motion in as little as one month, the Jewish Agency for Israel chairman said in an interview Thursday in his Jerusalem office.
Sharansky, who was charged last year with finding a solution to mounting tensions over women's prayer at the Western Wall, sounded cautiously optimistic about his plan to create an egalitarian space equal in size to the current men's and women's sections combined.
After three months of consultations with a wide spectrum of Israeli and American Jewish leaders, Sharansky unveiled the plan Tuesday in New York. Now back in Israel, he will present the plan to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He hopes his solution -- to improve an already existing egalitarian space in an archeological park known as Robinson's Arch -- could be implemented within one to two months.
“This issue will keep haunting us all the time as long as there is no basic agreement,” Sharansky told JTA. “There must be an opportunity for every Jew in the world to pray at the Wall in the manner he or she wants, without interfering with the prayers of others. I believe it is possible to reach a very broad consensus.”
The plan calls for the Robinson’s Arch area, currently excavated many feet below ground by archeologists, to be raised to the level of the current Western Wall plaza. The two sections will share an entrance. Sharansky told JTA that the Mughrabi Bridge to the Temple Mount, which currently separates Robinson's Arch from the main plaza, will remain intact.
The question of accommodating non-Orthodox groups while the plan moves forward remains pressing and Sharansky was vague about how to address it. Having a permanent agreement in place, he said, will “decrease tension.”
Tensions rose again on Thursday morning as five women were detained by police for wearing prayer shawls at the Western Wall, which contravenes Israeli law requiring respect for “local custom” at the Wall. According to a statement from Women of the Wall, an advocacy group that has pressed for women's equality at the Wall, a judge subsequently ruled that there were no grounds for the arrest and that women's prayer does not disturb public order.
Under Sharansky's plan, women would be allowed to wear prayer shawls at Robinson’s Arch.
“In the absence of an agreement we’ll have this morning every month, no doubt,” Sharansky said.
The next step is for Netanyahu to convene a forum to formally approve the plan. Then a “specialized group of professionals” will conduct negotiations between relevant parties, including the Western Wall’s rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, and Israeli Conservative and Reform leaders. After that, a timeline would be established for construction and an interim solution found for non-Orthodox worshippers. Only then will the space be dedicated and construction begin.
“Only one week ago, I was told [there was] no chance I’ll get an agreement from different sides to discuss seriously this option,” Sharansky said. “As you can see, all the sides expressed their reservations, but everyone understands that the dangers of not having a solution are much bigger.”
Sharansky acknowledged that the plan could still face myriad hurdles. Even if the process goes smoothly, it could be derailed by archaeological concerns at Robinson’s Arch, opposition from the Waqf -- the Muslim body that controls the Temple Mount -- or a budget shortfall.
“There are so many bureaucratic obstacles and so many organizations that can destroy and undermine” the plan, Sharansky told JTA. “Tomorrow, we’ll find out that archaeological authorities have their problems and local authorities have their problem.”
Sharansky said that “not one brick connected to Mughrabi will be touched and not one area under control of the Waqf will be challenged, but I can’t decide for them what to do.”