A high-profile body that liaises between Israel and the Jewish diaspora has reacted with fury at a decision by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to in effect abandon a plan to allow men and women to pray together at the Western Wall.
The Jewish Agency has cancelled a gala dinner with Netanyahu in Jerusalem and is to discuss the ramifications of the decision at a meeting this week.
The Israeli cabinet decided on Sunday to scrap a compromise agreement made 17 months ago, which was intended to resolve a battle lasting more than a quarter of a century over equal rights for women praying at the Western Wall.
Netanyahu came under intense pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition government and the religious authorities that manage the site, the holiest place that Jews can pray.
The plan would have created a new area for worship at the Western Wall for men and women to pray together. At present, prayer areas are segregated, with a small stretch of the wall of the ancient temple reserved for women.
The deal, made in January 2016, was welcomed by liberal and reform Jews, and the feminist group Women of the Wall, which has mounted monthly protests at the Old City site since 1989. The gatherings frequently ended in physical tussles and arrests.
Women of the Wall also demanded an end to ultra-Orthodox bans on women praying aloud, reading from the Torah and wearing traditional prayer shawls, known as tallit.
The compromise followed three years of intense negotiations between liberal Israeli and American Jewish groups and the Israeli authorities and was seen as a significant breakthrough in promoting religious pluralism in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox authorities govern almost every facet of Jewish life.
But opposition from Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious establishment has prevented the agreement from being implemented.
Speaking after Sunday’s announcement, Moshe Gafni, the leader of the ultra-religious United Torah Judaism party, said: “We are happy about this, and thank the holy one, blessed is he, on this great success.”
But Anat Hoffman, the chairwoman of Women of the Wall, accused Netanyahu of reneging on a “historic” agreement with liberal Jewish denominations.
“This is a bad day for women in Israel,” she wrote on Facebook. “The Women of the Wall will continue to worship at the women’s section of the Western Wall with the Torah scroll, prayer shawls and phylacteries until equality for women arrives at the wall as well.”
Natan Sharansky, a former government minister and chairman of the Jewish Agency, who helped broker the original deal, said the move was a “deep disappointment”.
The agreement would have established “a dignified space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall,’’ Sharansky said. “[The] decision signifies a retreat from that agreement and will make our work to bring Israel and the Jewish world closer together increasingly more difficult.”
The Jewish Agency’s board of governors, which is meeting in Jerusalem this week, said: “In light of [Sunday’s] decisions by the government of Israel, the board of governors of The Jewish Agency for Israel will be changing its entire agenda for the remaining two days of its meetings in Jerusalem, in order to address the ramifications of these decisions.
“The scheduled dinner with the participation of the prime minister has been cancelled.”
A ceremony to mark the opening of the board of governors at the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, on Monday was also cancelled.
Salai Meridor, a former head of the Jewish Agency and former ambassador to the US, said the decision was “a slap in the face to world Jewry” and the Western Wall “belongs to all Jews”.
The American Jewish Committee said the decision would weaken ties between American Jewry and Israel. “The Kotel [Western Wall] belongs to all Jews worldwide, not to a self-appointed segment,” said its chief executive, David Harris. “This decision is a setback for Jewish unity and the essential ties that bind Israel and American Jews, the two largest centres of Jewish life in the world.”
The cabinet decision came before a deadline set by Israel’s high court of justice on Sunday for the state to respond to petitions on its failure to implement the agreement.
Thousands of Jews pray every day at the site, the last remnant of the retaining wall of the Temple Mount, pushing scraps of paper bearing handwritten prayers into the cracks between stones.
The wall also attracts thousands of tourists and international dignitaries, with Pope Francis, Donald Trump and Madonna among global figures who have visited.
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis strictly govern Jewish practices in Israel such as weddings, divorces and burials. The ultra-Orthodox religious establishment sees itself as responsible for maintaining traditions through centuries of persecution and assimilation, and it resists any inroads from liberals it often considers to be second-class Jews who ordain women and gay people and are overly inclusive toward converts and interfaith marriages.