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Middle East

Netanyahu reaches out to women who want to tear down sexism at the Wall

Under pressure from Jewish overseas groups, Israel's PM will review restrictions at holy site

One of the first things that strikes you about Jerusalem's Western Wall – one of Judaism's holiest sites – is the gender division. Not only are women forced to pray at a much smaller, and often much more crowded, section of the wall, they are also prohibited from wearing ritual clothes and carrying the Torah.

Now, after decades of protest at the divide – which was upheld in a 2003 decision of the Israeli Supreme Court – Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has signalled he is willing to consider ways of reducing the tension.

Mr Netanyahu – who is facing a general election next month – has asked the chairman of the influential Jewish Agency to consider ways of mollifying the concerns of largely overseas groups, especially in the US, where what is considered by many as sexism does not sit easily. In Israel, the powerful orthodox lobby largely backs the status quo.

"The Prime Minister thinks the Western Wall has to be a site that expresses the unity of the Jewish people, both inside Israel and outside the state of Israel," Ron Dermer, Mr Netanyahu's senior adviser, told The New York Times earlier this week. "He wants to preserve the unity of world Jewry. This is an important component of Israel's strength."

Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, which seeks to promote ties between Israel and the Jewish diaspora, told the newspaper that he has been asked to draw up proposals within months.

"I imagine very easily a situation where every person will have their opportunity to express their solidarity with Judaism and the Jewish people and the state of Israel in a way he or she wants, without undermining the other," he said. The announcement comes after police last week detained women from a liberal Jewish group who approached the Western Wall in prayer shawls.

The Israeli government is acutely aware of the need for backing from international supporters, especially in light of the recent war in the Gaza Strip, the widespread support for the Palestinian Authority's successful bid for recognition at the UN, and the increase in approvals for new Jewish homes to be built in the West Bank.

On Monday this week, the green light was given for 1,200 new housing units to be built in Gilo, southern Jerusalem. That decision by the city's planning committee took to more than 5,000 the number of new homes approved in Jewish districts of East Jerusalem during the past week, with similar decisions taken for the areas of Ramat Shlomo and Givat Hamatos.