Netanyahu rejects calls for mixed gender worship at Western Wall

Israeli NGOs asked court to compel the government to honour the agreement

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has brushed aside a supreme court warning over his refusal to implement a deal allowing women and men to pray together at Jerusalem's Western Wall.
A justice ministry statement issued Tuesday said the state attorney's office had informed the court that Netanyahu was sticking to his decision to freeze the January 2016 agreement, arguing it was non-binding and subject to government policy needs.
Netanyahu's right-wing government had agreed after a long campaign by reform Jewish groups to allow mixed worship at a section of east Jerusalem's Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray.
But under pressure from ultra-Orthodox political parties, whose support is vital for the government's slender parliamentary majority, Netanyahu in June froze implementation of the scheme indefinitely.
The freeze angered the influential American Jewish community, the majority of whom follow more liberal strands of Judaism.
Israeli NGOs filed suit with the supreme court asking that it compel the government to honour the agreement and last month the court asked the government to reconsider the freeze.
"If the answer is in the negative," the court wrote at the time, the state should address the question "if the possibility exists in law to compel the government to implement the agreement."
The government's written response said "no" on both points.
It said Netanyahu "considered all the circumstances of the matter and decided not to bring the issue of the Western Wall to further discussion before the cabinet", the justice ministry statement said.
It added that the government also said the court could not force it to act.
"The issue is absolutely one of policy, the complexity and sensitivity of which does not need to be enlarged upon," it quoted the state attorney's office as writing.
"The government, by the nature of things, has broad discretion in the manner of resolving this issue," the government response added, asking the judges to throw out the lawsuit.
"In these circumstances," it went on, "there was no flaw in the decision of the government of Israel to order the suspension."
The Jerusalem Post daily said on Wednesday that the court was expected to rule by January.
In accordance with strict ultra-Orthodox tradition, there are currently separate prayer sections for women and men at the wall, one of the last remnants of the Second Jewish Temple destroyed in 70 AD.
Women are also barred from leading prayers or bringing in Torah scrolls, and activists have for years been campaigning for equal prayer rights.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews represent about 10 percent of the Israeli population.