Petty Partisanship or Unfortunate Blips: This Week at the Western Wall and Better Place

by Brian on August 27, 2013

in In the News,Politics

Bennett at new plazaThis was not a good week for progress. Or more to the point, for continuing the progress that we thought we’d already made. Rather, it seems like politics and “business as usual” have torpedoed two bold initiatives that could have made real change. The issues on the table: the government’s backward proposal for addressing egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and the unraveling drama at bankrupt electric car company Better Place.

In both cases, there was great relief in the past months (depending on which side of the debate you were on, of course) that is now being painfully reversed. The Women of the Wall’s prolonged and unwavering push for equal access to the Kotel for its Rosh Hodesh prayers resulted in, first, a court ruling and then a Solomonic solution from Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky to open up a third section of the Wall to egalitarian worship. It wasn’t perfect, but it was accepted by many of the sparring parties.

So imagine the surprise and upset Sunday when Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, who also serves as Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora, released his own plan which provides for a much smaller area for non-Orthodox prayer, at a lower level (if this was a visit from the Turkish ambassador we’d have another international crisis on our hands) and – here’s the clincher – no actual physical access to the Wall itself.

Whether this new look-don’t-touch plan is intended to placate the archaeologists who were already upset over the damage upgrading the Robinson’s Arch area would do, or is a capitulation to the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) authorities around the corner at the “main” plaza so that the scandalous mixed multitude won’t be able to reach the “sacred” stones themselves, I can only cynically speculate.

An official smugly referred to the new area as “respectable, accommodating and nice.” Bennett emphasized it’s only an interim measure, built in a hurry to open up more space prior to the High Holidays (Sharansky threw political correctness behind the space, calling it a “gesture of goodwill”), but we all know how “temporary” measures have a habit of becoming the blueprint for more permanent structures. (Think about how the “separation barrier” in the West Bank is very much the basis for a future possible border between Israel and a Palestinian state.) Back in the Old City, there’s already been much push back in liberal quarters and Women of the Wall’s Anat Hoffman called in a video for a 24-hour protest “sit-in.”

The second example of progress throttled concerns the future of electric cars in Israel. Electric car drivers like me exhaled deeply when a consortium of Better Place vehicle owners hooked up with solar entrepreneur Yossi Abramowitz and submitted a winning bid in July to buy the defunct company’s assets. The bid included a pledge to keep many (although not all) of the critical battery swapping stations open.

Those of us who were dreading a different outcome – one which might involve the whole network being sold for parts to pay back demanding creditors – were optimistic, and the owner’s association set up a lively and transparent Facebook group where seemingly any question could be raised and debated. Customer service remained at high levels and an extra three swapping stations even came online due to the group’s cost cutting and more efficient management, bringing the total to about half of the pre-bankruptcy number.

But someone – the group that made the losing bid, the government? – seemed determined to scupper the deal which stipulated that the Transportation Ministry release some 350 electric vehicles that the new owners said had buyers eagerly waiting. The sale of these cars, at about half price, was intended to generate the revenue needed to make milestone payments and give confidence to Green EV (the new buyers)’s overseas investors. But the Transportation Ministry, citing licensing issues and paperwork problems that could have easily been overcome with a little forward thinking, refused to give Green EV the cars to sell. Green EV, as a result, couldn’t make its payments without that critical component in its business plan, and the competing group, Merkur, petitioned the court to overturn the sale, which is exactly what happened Sunday afternoon. Merkur is now the new owner.

Now, it’s too early to say if the new group will do a better or worse job of keeping things running and communicating with Better Place car owners. We don’t know how many swapping stations will stay open, but it doesn’t bode well that Merkur was not required to make any assurances whatsoever. In the court papers it said it would only pledge to keep operational a “maximum of 15 stations.” (A Facebook post from the company revised that to “11-15” stations.) Merkur also got the government to sign off on a discount off the already discounted acquisition price if the Transportation Ministry doesn’t release the cars within a specified period of time. Why wasn’t Green EV given the same option?

The government was notoriously non supportive of Better Place in its first incarnation; some speculated that would improve once the combative company founder Shai Agassi was out of the picture. But there’s something about how this all played out that suggests someone was in cahoots with someone else at a very high level and that the government once again conspired, either out of contempt or incompetence, to defeat Better Place’s best chance at a corporate turn around and a second chance at keeping the national electric dream humming.

Do these two events represent a return to the petty partisanship of the past? Or are they just blips that unfortunately resonate high on my egali-electric agenda, making this pessimistic outburst unwarranted? I’m hoping for the second but girding for the first.

This article appeared on the Times of Israel website.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: