Faced with riots in Hebron and criticism from the US State Department, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Thursday that the designation of the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb as Jewish heritage sites for renovation and preservation would do nothing to change the status quo at the sites.
In an apparent effort to keep the issue from spiraling out of control, Netanyahu – for the third time in three days – said it was possible the decision to place the two sites on a list of Jewish heritage sites was misunderstood abroad.
“This is neither a diplomatic nor political decision,” he said. “It doesn’t change anything. It is meant to preserve places of heritage, a heritage that has been with us for some 4,000 years. We are not establishing anything new.”
Palestinians rioters in Hebron have said they were concerned the decision was meant to change the arrangements that have been in place at the cave – effectively dividing it between Jews and Muslims – since the Baruch Goldstein massacre there 16 years ago.
“I think this issue needs to be dropped and will be dropped,” Netanyahu said of the commotion. “Apparently there is a misunderstanding, because there is no intention or plan to change the status quo, not in the site or in the prayer arrangements. We will keep the freedom of worship and the existing arrangements for Jewish and Muslim worshipers. What we want to do is preserve and maintain the existing prayer arrangements.”
The US State Department on Wednesday added its voice to others in the international community slamming the move, with State Department Mark Toner saying the administration viewed the move as provocative and unhelpful to the goal of getting the two sides back to negotiations.
Indeed, the PLO’s executive committee said it would not back a return to negotiations – whether directly or indirectly through “proximity talks” – if Israel did not cancel the decision.
One key member of the committee, Yasser Abed Rabbo, was quoted Thursday as saying Israel was trying to “poison the atmosphere” and destroy steps being taken to renew the talks.
An Israeli government official responded by saying that the Palestinians were trumping up the issue, looking for a reason to continue rejecting negotiations. “Only someone who is looking for excuses to stay away from talks would say something like this,” the official said in response to Abed Rabbo’s comments.
Netanyahu said that the Cave of the Patriarchs – according to Jewish tradition the burial place of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah – has been a place of Jewish worship for some 4,000 years.
“We know that it is also holy to Muslims, and we respect that,” he said “It is fitting that there will be suitable prayer arrangements.”
He said that just as the wakf
(Islamic trust) has refurbished the Muslim prayer area at the cave, so
too does the government want to carry out maintenance in the part of
the cave where the Jews pray.
“In the best-case scenario we are talking here about a
misunderstanding,” Netanyahu said. “I want to say very clearly, we will
preserve the existing status quo.”
The issue also came up briefly during talks in Jerusalem on Thursday
between Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and US Deputy Secretary of
State James Steinberg, with Ayalon saying the decision had no
diplomatic overtones, but rather was an effort to preserve sites key to
Jewish tradition and heritage.