Western Wall (Kotel)
Western Wall (Kotel) REUTERS

A controversial plan to establish a designated mixed-gender prayer area for members of the Reform and Conservative movements at the Western Wall will not be implemented, the government decided at a coalition meeting on Sunday.

Leaders of the Reform Movement in the United States and members of the small but vocal “Women of the Wall” group in Israel had for years demanded Israel set aside space at the Western Wall for non-traditional religious groups wishing to hold mixed-gender prayer services.

Representatives of the Reform Movement in Israel have sued the government in a bid to secure a separate prayer space for their activities, resulting in a compromise agreement with the government which would include the establishment of a formally recognized non-traditional prayer space at the southern end of the Western Wall, near Robinson’s Arch.

But religious coalition partners balked at the deal, noting it violated the holy site’s tradition of gender-separate prayer areas, which predates the establishment of the state. Religious MKs also objected to what they called the de facto recognition of the Reform Movement in Israel, calling the demand for prayer space a ploy to gain officially recognized status in Israel, where few Jews identify as Reform.

The two haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism have pushed for the nullification of the Western Wall Plaza agreement. Some members of the Jewish Home party, including Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, have joined the haredi factions in opposing the deal.

On Sunday, the government moved to freeze the Western Wall Plaza deal indefinitely, effectively cancelling the previous government’s endorsement of the plan.

According to the coalition’s decision on Sunday, any move to advance the plan would require another government decision explicitly renewing coalition support for the deal.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has instructed Regional Cooperation Minister Tzahi Hanegbi (Likud) and Cabinet Secretary Tzahi Braverman (Likud) to draft an alternative plan.

The government’s decision preserves the Status Quo on religion and state both with regards to prayer at the Western Wall and the non-recognition of non-traditional Jewish movements.

Two cabinet members – Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu) and National Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud) – voted against Sunday’s decision. There were no abstentions.

Chief Rabbi David Lau praised the government’s decision.

“The decision by the government to divide the Western Wall, which is the heart of the Jewish people, was fundamentally flawed, and it’s good that this [decision] was stopped.”

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