Peres serry 311.
(photo credit: GPO)
President Shimon Peres attempted to calm tensions Wednesday, a day after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned of a “religious war” over Israel’s decision to place the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb on its heritage sites list.
Speaking to the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry at Jerusalem's Beit Hanassi, Peres stressed that Israel wasn’t interested in "monopolizing" the sites and that it did not need "artificial conflicts" sparked by a "misunderstanding."
He said that Israel respects "every holy place," emphasizing that while it wanted to educate Jews that the sites are holy to them, this certainly did not mean they would be off limits to Muslims.
“We are going to tell our children that it is a holy place for the Jewish people,” he said. “It doesn’t mean Muslims can’t pray there.”
Explaining Netanyahu's recent decision to include Jewish landmarks in the West Bank on the list of national heritage sites, Peres said that resources would be invested in infrastructure and in making holy sites more accessible to more worshipers. He stressed that Israel would continue to uphold its policy of freedom of worship for all faiths.
The president told his guest that there were extremist groups with vested interests, first and foremost Hamas, which were "creating" conflicts in the region.
Peres asked Serry to communicate to Ban Ki-moon that the idea behind the government's decision was to preserve holy sites and prevent them from falling further into disrepair. He stressed that the initiative was in no way aimed at offending the sensibilities of Christians and Muslims or denying them access to their holy sites.
Serry, who came to Jerusalem after a series of meetings with leading figures in the Palestinian Authority, discussed what he perceived as a growing crisis in confidence between the Palestinians and the Israelis and emphasized the importance of flexibility in order to significantly advance the political process. Nonetheless, Serry was optimistic that hurdles could be overcome and that talks between the two sides could resume in the near future.
Peres responded that there was no alternative to direct talks. Any delay in the resumption of negotiations, he said, would be to the Palestinians' detriment. Failure to reach an accord, the president explained, meant further postponement of the establishment of a Palestinian State.
Peres assured Serry that there was consensus in Israel as to the principle of two states for two peoples existing side by side. He added that he had no doubt that the conclusion of negotiations would differ considerably from opening gambits.
Serry told Peres that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hoped to visit the region in the coming year.
The envoy also expressed an interest in learning what could be done to ease the passage of goods into Gaza.
The two men discussed the humanitarian needs of the people in Gaza.
Serry highlighted the lack of materials coming through legitimate crossings for economic recovery and reconstruction for the civilian population.
Peres said he was not entirely convinced that such materials were being used solely for restoration purposes. Hamas, he warned, was using them to build more smuggling tunnels. The president stressed that Israel would not endanger the security of its citizens by allowing Hamas, which is generally recognized as a terror organization and an agent of Iran, to obtain the means to carry out its policy of murder and destruction.
Before leaving, Serry expressed appreciation for Israel's enormous
contribution towards saving lives in Haiti, and said that what Israel
had done in Haiti served to strengthen the positive relationship
between Israel and the UN.
On Monday, Serry sharply criticized
cabinet decision to include the Hebron and Bethlehem sites to the list
of historical, religious and cultural sites that would be marked for
preservation and restoration.
The Prime Minister’s Office
reacted with anger on Tuesday night to Abbas’s warning, with Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s spokesman Nir Hefetz calling the
Palestinian campaign “untruthful and hypocritical.”