Is the Kotel compromise dead? Answering a reader’s question

I was in Washington last week, for the AIPAC conference, when a woman jumped at me with good news and bad news. The good: she is from the L.A area, an avid reader of the Jewish Journal and of my column, and while she often does not agree with it, she nevertheless appreciates my “take on things.” The bad: she thinks that the Kotel compromise is dead – and that Israel-diaspora relations might have died with it.

She delivered the news with a perkiness unfitting of the content, but then she hesitated: is it really dead?

The compromise or Israel-diaspora relations? – I asked.

Both – she said.

Well, Israel-diaspora relations are not dead, not even if the compromise is dead, I responded. And as for the Kotel, let me get back to you, as I need to make some phone calls to make my answer more valid.

More bad news: I do not have a valid answer. No one has a valid answer. About a month ago, I was wrong to assume that Haredi resistance to the compromise was temporary and insignificant. I also explained that one should not be impressed by “the insults, the idiotic comments from Haredi MKs, the disgusting rhetoric – these are just words.” The Haredis, I wrote, have real political power. They are a part of a very narrow coalition that cannot survive without them, they command hundreds of thousands of people that can demonstrate and make themselves heard; and yet, all we get is some insults.

Now it seems that they are more willing than I assumed to use their power to block the Kotel compromise. Why? Because they can. Because they are threatened by the sudden victories of progressive Jews in more than one front (the other one being the ritual baths decision by the High Court). Because they believe that the Kotel is currently not high priority for the Prime Minister. Because there is an internal Haredi dynamic that pushes even those who previously accepted the compromise towards the uncompromising camp.

Can the Haredis win this battle? That is a question that's easy to answer: of course they can – if their assumptions are valid.

Can progressive Jews win this battle? Another easy one: they can only win if the PM is still completely on their side.

Can the PM win this battle? Again, not a hard question: He can win, if he is serious about the compromise and is willing to take risks to see it through.

That is to say: the Kotel compromise is now an issue at the heart of a game of chicken. The Haredis pretend to be willing to dismantle Netanyahu's coalition if the PM insists on the compromise. The PM is also pretending that the compromise is high priority and that he will not surrender. If the PM is convinced that the Haredis are truly serious about threatening his coalition, I do not think he will be ready to forgo the coalition for such a marginal issue (sorry, on his agenda it is still marginal). If the haredis are convinced that the PM is truly serious about the deal, no matter the risk to his coalition, I do not think they are ready to forgo the coalition for such a marginal issue (yes, for the Haredis it is also not the number one priority).

The risk for both these sides is miscalculation.

When such a risk presents itself, the easier way is to postpone, and that is exactly what the PM was doing when he appointed a committee “to coordinate discussions on this issue with the various elements and to present – within 60 days – a recommendation on the steps necessary to resolve the difficulties, according to the solution that has been proposed.”

That is well-crafted language.

It gives the PM at least 60 days – he can then ask for more time, and do not be surprised if he does.

The recommendations concern “the solution that has been proposed.” Namely, the fact the government approved the solution was forgotten, and the solution was scaled back and is now called a proposed solution.

So what are the options for the government's next steps:

1. The Haredis want something and will trade the Kotel in order to get it. If that is the case, the compromise will move forward.

2. The haredis want the Kotel, and will not be willing to compromise. If that's the case, the PM will drag his feet – it really doesn't make any sense for him to dismantle a coalition over this.

3. The court will intervene. The government needs to respond to an appeal by women demanding to enter the Kotel with Torah scrolls. The compromise gave the government a tool with which to convince the court that there is a solution other than letting this happen. If the compromise is dead, the government might find itself having to deal with a court decision that will further complicate the political situation. But note: court intervention will probably take some time.

What is the most likely option? I made the phone calls and am still not certain. The Haredis feel that they have to wage a battle because of the Mikvah decision (and the ruling by the attorney general that the legislation they propose to solve it with is unconstitutional). The PM has a new headache created by the court – having to solve the issue of the economically significant gas deal. He is busy, and will need every Haredi finger in the Knesset. Progressive Jews are losing patience – understandably. They can wait for the court – their traditional ally. Or they can threaten the government by utilizing the anger of diaspora Jews. Alas, US Jews currently seem busy with their own election, and so for them the Kotel is also not the first priority for the time being.

So no, the compromise is not dead. But it has good reasons to take a nap.