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Asking Netanyahu for a Down Payment on the Kotel Deal

by Shmuel Rosner

April 14, 2013 | 8:08 am

A woman praying at the Western Wall, photo by Reuters

The reason I'm still writing about Women of the Wall and the Kotel compromise (you can see last week’s posts on this matter here and here) is because I truly think it's important and even dramatic. What Natan Sharansky proposed is going to change the status of progressive/egalitarian/ moderate/non-Orthodox – call it whatever name you want – Judaism in Israel. Since all sides essentially said that they support the deal, it should be only a matter of time until it's implemented. That is, if there are no new obstacles to prevent it and if the Israeli government is serious.

What are the possible obstacles to implementing the deal?

  1. Outside opposition: the plan is to build a new construction in the Kotel area. That's a sensitive area and one could envision a scenario in which Palestinian, Jordanian, or Saudi opposition to the presumed change in the status quo makes this whole thing much more complicated for the government.
  2. Opposition within the government: Sharansky has spoken to everybody, but when the deal is officially presented some players might change their minds, especially members of the Habait Hayehudi party. If rabbinical pressure is put on the heads of this party to ask for changes and amendments and oppose the deal as a package deal – it will not work.
  3. Opposition within Israel: Here I'm talking about the public, mainly about the Haredi community. See Nathan Jeffay's article for more detail about possible (in his view even probable)  Haredi opposition to the plan. Haredis can disrupt the plan in many ways, and since they are not bound by ties to the coalition they can now do whatever they want. 
  4. Progressive change of heart: I don't think this is going to happen unless changes are made to the plan as the leaders of Conservative and Reform movements understand it. If they see, though, that the government is dragging its feet, they might lose patience and decide that going back to court is the only way to make something truly happen. If they go to court, the deal is in danger.
  5. Netanyahu’s possible reluctance: Talking to many of the people involved in this process one gets the impression that this is the big unknown of the Kotel compromise. Everyone is convinced that Sharansky was mediating in good faith; most think that while the deal is not ideal it is very good or at least satisfying under the circumstances; and very few believe Netanyahu will eventually go along with it.

Since the compromise is built around the expansion of the Kotel and the construction of a new "platform" that will serve as its southern section, it must take time to get to the actual implementation. A lot of the preparatory planning work is already done, but more work is needed, and the process can't be very short, even before we count the construction work. A lot could happen between the current planning phase and the point in which people can actually pray in the southern section. How can progressive supporters of the deal make sure that they are not deceived, that the government truly means it, and that they aren't paying with patience for a product that will never come to fruition?

There are answers, but they all begin with a simple acknowledgment: the leaders of the battle – both grassroots and established – are still very much in doubt as to the true intentions of Prime Minister Netanyahu. They don't trust him. They won’t count on Sharansky's word, not even on Bibi’s word – they want proof. Some of them call it "down payment", others are talking about a "seriousness fee". The idea is the same: while the government can't provide the ultimate arrangement instantly, there are things that can be done to demonstrate its seriousness and commitment. Three examples of such possible demonstrations:

  1. A ceremonial commitment: Netanyahu can arrange a ceremony in which he and the leading figures of the Kotel battle – heads of the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel and abroad, leading rabbis, Women of the Wall – come together at the site where the new platform will be built. He can wear a kippah and pray with the (women) rabbis that will be leading a short service. He can make a speech promising a new chapter in the relations between Jews of non-Orthodox convictions and official Israel. If Netanyahu is photographed near the Kotel with a woman wearing a talith, he means business.
  2. An interim arrangement: I don't think this one is very likely to happen, but it would have been nice if the government would let WOW pray for two hours a month near the Kotel until the new platform is built. Why? Because it will give WOW an even more tangible triumph (I think they are winning anyway); and because it will tell the Orthodox that if they don't play along with the Sharansky plan they'll have to live with an even worse situation (worse from their viewpoint); and because it will be tough on the government, thus showing that the government is serious and putting pressure on it to complete the construction in a timely fashion (to end the interim arrangement as soon as possible).
  3. An actual measure taken: One of the least discussed but still very significant changes that are part of the Sharansky plan, is the change in the way The Western Wall Heritage Foundation will be managed. Currently, it is to a large extent controlled by the Orthodox, but under the agreed compromise, the Foundation is going to be handled by a body in which Diaspora Jews and progressive Jews will have a much larger voice (there are two options for the exact way this will be done: the Jewish Agency handling of the Foundation is one of them). This part of the plan requires no construction and no building of platforms. So the government can just go ahead and do it – if it is serious about the new plan, that is.

Thus far, all parties involved were smart enough to accept the deal, but not all of them did it because they think it's wonderful or because they think it will be executed. Some of them just didn't want to be the naysayer and hope that the government can be trusted to botch it – saving them the trouble of being seen as trouble makers. One would hope that the dynamics of this process will make it harder for these participants to suddenly turn on their heels and oppose what they now say they support. Clearly, if this deal fails, the next move for Israeli progressives will be to head right back to court, and this time they will be armed with even more proof that the government doesn't have clean hands and isn’t doing enough to find an acceptable solution to this unacceptable reality.    

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