The murky politics of the Kotel compromise

The murky politics of the Kotel compromise

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Unlike the United States, where pressure groups operate to influence decision-makers in both the Congress and the White House, Israeli interest groups focus almost exclusively on Knesset members. They also seek to effect positions within the various parties, both within the ruling government coalition and outside. As in the United States, their only other avenue to influence policy is through the media. 

It is in that context that one should view the announcement by the Netanyahu government creating a pluralistic location at the Western Wall for egalitarian worship. After years of battling with various government coalitions, the non-Orthodox denominations, together with Women of the Wall, appear to have finally won recognition of their right to have their own legitimate area for praying at the Wall. In the case of Women of the Wall, their fight goes back approximately 27 years. 

For many Israeli Jews, as well as for much of American Jewry, the approved change at the Kotel is a long time coming and recognizes 21st century reality. The pushback from the haredim, or fervently Orthodox, in Israel will be strong and aggressive. It will be a true test of whether the Israeli government will be able to withstand these political challenges. 

The governing coalition cannot survive the defection of the haredi parties. The current coalition only holds 61 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. The haredi parties hold 13 of those seats — six for Shas and seven for United Torah Judaism. The haredi parties could create a major political crisis for Netanyahu if they withdraw in protest. 

A key question is whether Netanyahu appeased the haredi parties in anticipation of the compromise. Did he offer favors in order to limit their objections and protests? Alternatively, is this a political charade to placate non-Orthodox communities? After all, a breakoff group known as Original Women of the Wall rejects the compromise. They object that the recognized egalitarian prayer space is not at the space most regard as the traditional Kotel, but near it; they also suspect that the haredi authorities traded recognition of the rights of Reform and Conservative Jews so that the traditional Kotel will be enshrined as an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. 

The previous Netanyahu government — which had no religious parties in its coalition — had managed to commit to haredi participation in the military or compulsory national service. This new government — now with haredi participation in it — rescinded that decision. If the Kotel compromise becomes such a political liability, Netanyahu can appear to be sympathetic to the non-Orthodox parties and Diaspora interests while blaming the haredim and politics for its failure.

There is another, more extreme possibility: If the haredi parties reject the deal, or their rabbis and leaders cannot endure the protests within their communities, they could pull the government down. Such a crisis would either enable Netanyahu to try to form a new government without the Orthodox, present Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union the opportunity to form a new government, or lead to new elections, something which Netanyahu would certainly like to avoid. 

This government response to the religious pluralism issue also must be considered within the context of other protests. Diaspora Jews, especially among the non-Orthodox, are not satisfied with Netanyahu’s response to the needs of Israeli Arabs for equitable public services, the government’s recent decision to grant $3.84 billion over five years to the Israeli Arab sector notwithstanding. Similarly, many American Jews are not pleased with what they see as an anti-democratic tilt among various government figures. Miri Regev, the minister of culture and sport, has proposed cutting state funding for Israeli artists and institutions that aren’t sufficiently “loyal” to the state. American Jewish groups criticized Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked for backing a bill they said would unduly and undemocratically stigmatize NGOs, almost exclusively on the left, that receive funding from foreign governments.

If the government is able to actually enforce the Kotel compromise, it will represent a dramatic political shift in Israeli religious life, and hand a victory to groups that have promoted pluralism for decades. If it doesn’t succeed, Netanyahu will undoubtedly face pressure from all sides.

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