Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired back at his British counterpart David Cameron on Thursday, saying Europe should remember that Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem prevents Islamic State and Hamas from burning holy sites in the capital, as they have done elsewhere.
Netanyahu’s sharp comment at a Likud political gathering in Ofakim came in response to statements made Wednesday by Cameron in Parliament, slamming Israel’s policies in the capital.
“I am well known for being a strong friend of Israel, but I have to say the first time I visited Jerusalem and had a proper tour around that wonderful city and saw what has happened with the effective encirclement of east Jerusalem – occupied east Jerusalem – I found it genuinely shocking,” Cameron said during a question period.
He added that what his government has done, and will continue to do, “is say that we are supporters of Israel, but we do not support illegal settlements and we do not support what is happening in east Jerusalem. It is very important for this capital city to be maintained in the way it was in the past.”
Cameron’s comments came in response to a question put forth by Labor MP Imran Hussain, who said that last week he visited “Palestine” and went to the home of Nora and her family, Old City residents, where he said they have lived since 1953.
“Israeli settlers, however, are now trying to force Nora from her home of over 60 years,” Hussain claimed. “There are many other cases like that. Does [Cameron] agree with me that illegal settlements and constructions are a major roadblock that hinder peaceful negotiations? What is this government doing to help prevent these infringements into Palestinian lives and land?” Netanyahu, who prefaced his remarks by saying that Cameron is “without a doubt a friend of Israel,” said the British premier has forgotten some basic facts about Jerusalem.
In addition to preventing Islamic State and Hamas from destroying the city, he said, “only Israeli sovereignty ensures Arab residents of the city have roads, clinics, places of employment and all the other means of normal life that their brothers do not enjoy throughout the Middle East.”
Only Israeli sovereignty ensures the rule of law for all, “something that does not exist in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya and in large areas of the Arab world, including the Palestinian Authority and Gaza,” he said. “Only Israeli sovereignty ensures all of that, and it is important that our friends in Europe will remember that simple fact.”
Netanyahu’s comments came after more than 24 hours when neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor the Foreign Ministry would comment on Cameron’s statements.
His comments were a sharp reversal from a week ago, when he praised Britain for enacting new anti-boycott regulations.
“We are once again being accused of being the source of all this tremendous instability around us that is plaguing the entire world; we’re accused of being deliberate murderers of children and so many other slanders,” he said before meeting visiting UK Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock last Wednesday.
“So it is in this context that I want to commend the British government for refusing to discriminate against Israel and Israelis, and I commend you for standing up for the one and only true democracy in the Middle East,” he said.
The proximity between the British anti-boycott measures and Cameron’s statement on Jerusalem has led to some speculation that the latter was an attempt to “balance out” the former.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat was the first Israeli official to respond to Cameron Thursday morning, issuing a statement saying the situation of east Jerusalem residents is much better than in any of the surrounding countries, and certainly better than when the British administered the region.
“Britain is a good and important friend of Israel and Jerusalem, but Prime Minister Cameron’s statement was incorrect, based on a lack of awareness of the advancements we are making in the city,” said Barkat.
“What construction is he ‘shocked’ by in east Jerusalem? By the newest, most advanced schools we are building to educate the youth? By the new roads we are paving for the residents? By the childcare and community centers we are establishing for the benefit of the families?” Moreover, Barkat took the PA and surrounding Muslim countries to task for not meaningfully aiding their own people, while the Israeli government has provided a far higher standard of living for Arab residents.
“And I ask: What has the Palestinian Authority done to invest in these areas in the West Bank and Gaza?” he said. “What have our neighbors – in Syria, in Iraq – done for their residents? The quality of life for east Jerusalem residents is constantly progressing and is far superior to the quality of life for residents in any of our neighboring countries.”
The mayor went on to ask Cameron to support the current united model of Jerusalem, which he claimed the majority of Arab residents of the city have repeatedly indicated is their preference in the “most recent independent, international surveys.”
He added that there is no distinction between Jerusalem’s democratic model of government and London’s, and to assume otherwise is “preposterous.”
“Just as in London, Jerusalemites are free to choose to live wherever they wish; just as in London, any form of discrimination based on religion, race or sex is prohibited by law,” Barkat said.
“As would be the case in London, the idea that a resident would be denied the right to live in a certain neighborhood based on their religion is preposterous.”
Taking a more conciliatory tone, Barkat concluded by inviting Cameron to visit the capital to judge the situation with his own eyes.
“I personally invite Prime Minister Cameron, a true friend of Israel, to visit and see for himself our commitment to our Arab residents in east Jerusalem and the tremendous advancement we have made in bridging gaps across the city,” he said.
“I invite Prime Minister Cameron to work with us to advance the development of the city of Jerusalem, rather than work to build walls and sharpen divisions in the heart of Jerusalem.”