A GROUP of Jewish leaders has cancelled a gala dinner with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in protest against his government’s decision to scrap plans to allow men and women to pray together at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

The board of governors of The Jewish Agency, a powerful non-profit group that works closely with the government to strengthen links with Jewish communities worldwide, said it was calling off its dinner with Netanyahu and clearing the agenda at its current annual conference in Jerusalem to focus on the issue in the coming days.

On Sunday, the government suspended an agreement to allow a mixed prayer area following calls by Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition allies to scrap the plan.

The agreement had followed three years of negotiations between liberal Jewish groups in Israel and in the US and the Israeli government and had been seen as a breakthrough in promoting religious pluralism in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox authorities govern almost every facet of Jewish life.

Abandoning the plan was immediately condemned by liberal Jewish groups around the world and by The Jewish Agency’s chairman Natan Sharansky, who played a big part in the agreement on a mixed plaza.

Sharansky, a former government minister, 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 move was also condemned by Israeli feminist group Women of the Wall, who have been protesting since 1989 against segregated prayer at the Western Wall, the holiest site of Jewish prayer.

The dramatic about-face at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting followed approval in January 2016 of a plan to officially recognise a special mixed-sex prayer area at the Western Wall.

The compromise was reached after three years of intense negotiations but the plan was never implemented as powerful ultra-Orthodox members of Netanyahu’s coalition government raised objections.

Under ultra-Orthodox management, the Wall is currently separated into men’s and women’s prayer sections and those attempting to hold egalitarian services are often harassed and heckled.

Besides the move to dump the plan to establish a $9 million plaza, a government decision to promote a bill that would enshrine an ultra-Orthodox monopoly over conversions to the Jewish faith also sparked condemnation from liberals.

However, the issue was not listed on the Cabinet’s agenda on Sunday and no official statement was made – which, in itself, reveals the issue’s sensitivity, as does Netanyahu refraining from addressing it in a speech to young diaspora Jews on a birthright trip to Israel.

The prime minister has kept quiet on the issue amid the outpouring of anger, even among some of his closest allies.

Elazar Stern, a modern Orthodox lawmaker from the centrist Yesh Atid party, asked the attorney general yesterday to review the decision-making process.

“Cancelling the Western Wall agreement causes a severe crisis between Israel and the Jewish diaspora and when such a decision is taken secretly, away from the eyes of the public and without ministers having a chance to prepare for it adequately, a large shadow is cast upon it,” he wrote.

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 who support ordaining women and gays, for instance, or are inclusive towards converts and interfaith marriages.

However, liberal groups have made some progress in recent years, even though they have encountered ultra-Orthodox resistance over breaking the monopoly on religious practices.

“We made a mistake. We believed the government, we believed the prime minister, we believed that we needed at last to end this squabbling among ourselves over the Western Wall, and we agreed to a compromise arrangement,” Yizhar Hess, head of the Conservative movement in Israel, wrote in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

“But the Cabinet’s decision – a cynical, even wicked decision – took this historic agreement and threw it in the faces of millions of Jews around the world.”