OCCUPIED JERUSALEM - Planning to expand the prayer plaza for Jews at Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Israeli government is considering liberalizing access to the Wailing Wall at Islam's third holiest shrine.
My proposal is to look at the entire area as a place for Jewish prayer, Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, told Yediot Aharonot on Wednesday, April 10.
Sharansky has proposed to expand the prayer plaza at the Wailing Wall to include the southern section known as Robinson's Arch.
Under the proposal, the area would be open for Jews wishing to pray in a less Orthodox, more egalitarian style.
"According to our recommendations, the access will be the same, 24 hours a day, on the same level, with a shared entrance, and no one will be able to say that they are being sent to a second-class place, he said.
The proposal came to defuse tension between Jews in diaspora and government officials over performing rituals at the site.
The rift has recently escalated after the arrest of women worshippers over praying at the site wearing religious garments and leading prayers acts that Orthodox Judaism permits for men only.
Sharansky proposes converting an old archaeological dig south of the Wall to a new enclosure which would be connected to the current prayer plazas but where men and women would be allowed to mix and worship freely.
The question is not how to force everybody to pray together, Sharansky told The New York Times.
But how to let everybody be able to pray as they wish without interfering with the other.
The proposal has been presented to Jewish leaders of the various denominations in Israel and the United States and to Israeli cabinet ministers.
"Everyone has their misgivings but they all understand that the situation where the Western Wall is a place of division must end, and that it must be rebuilt as a unifying place," he said.
The Wailing Wall, also known as Western Wall, is located at the foot of the western side of Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Al-Aqsa Mosque is the Muslims' first Qiblah [direction Muslims take during prayers] and it is the third holiest shrine after Al Ka`bah in Makkah and Prophet Muhammad's Mosque in Madinah, Saudi Arabia.
Its significance has been reinforced by the incident of Al Isra'a and Al Mi'raj the night journey from Makkah to Al-Quds and the ascent to the Heavens by Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings be Upon Him).
The holy place represents the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict as Jews claim that their alleged Haykal (Temple of Solomon) exists underneath Al-Haram Al-Sharif.
Foreign Jews welcomed the proposal to liberalize access to the Wailing Wall.
It's very ambitious, a dramatic change, and it will make history, said Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall, which championed the campaign for mixed prayers at the Wall.
It's not everything we were hoping for, but we will compromise. You don't always have to be right, you have to be smart, and compromise is a sign of maturity and understanding what's at stake here.
Peggy Cidor, a member of the group's board of directors, said the plan "sounds very, very encouraging".
"This situation, where every month we see one, two or three women being detained by police (at the Wall), could not go on," she told Israel's Army Radio.
"That was clear to everyone."
The compromise is believed to be supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to avoid losing diaspora support for Israel at a time of mounting international pressure over its stalled peacemaking with the Palestinians.
"There is no doubt that's why Netanyahu asked Sharansky to find a compromise," an official briefed on the plan told Reuters.
US-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in 2011 over Israel's refusal to halt settlement building in the occupied West Bank.
Israel also rejects any talks on the future of Jerusalem (Al-Quds), which it describes as its capital, a claim that is not recognized by the international community.
The Palestinians want Al-Quds (East Jerusalem) to be the capital of state they seek to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel occupied Al-Quds in the 1967 war and later annexed it in a move not recognized by the international community or UN resolutions.Since then, Israel has adopted a series of oppressive measures to force the Palestinians out of the city, including systematic demolition of their homes and building settlements.