Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog went head-to-head in the Knesset on Wednesday over Jerusalem, with the premier saying Palestinian refusal to recognize the Jewish state and its capital in any borders is the root of the conflict, and pledging that the city, including the Temple Mount and Western Wall, will forever remain under Israeli sovereignty.
A day after US President Donald Trump concluded a 28-hour visit to Jerusalem, the prime minister vowed the city would not be divided again.
During a plenum session marking the passage of 50 years since the Six Day War and the reunification of the city’s western and eastern halves, Netanyahu pointed to the US president’s visit to the Western Wall as having “destroyed UNESCO’s propaganda and lies,” referring to a series of resolutions by the UN cultural body that ignored Jewish ties to the city and Israeli sovereignty.
Herzog, meanwhile, implored Netanyahu to seize a “historic” opportunity for peace and downplayed the importance of moving the US embassy to the city, which was a campaign promise made by Trump.
“We liberated Jerusalem, we made it one city, imperfect but whole,” Netanyahu told lawmakers, at a session also attended by President Reuven Rivlin and Chief Supreme Court Justice Miriam Naor.
Before the Jews came to the city, there was “nearly nothing” in it; it was “forsaken and in constant crisis,” the prime minister said. During the 19 years between 1948 and 1967, the city again reached “a low,” he added.
“We will never return to that situation” of the city divided, he pledged. “The Temple Mount and the Western Wall will forever remain under Israeli sovereignty,” he later added.
Israel captured the Temple Mount — the holiest site for Jews — and the rest of the Old City and East Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967, and extended sovereignty there, but it left administrative authority atop the Mount in the hands of the Jordanian Waqf (Muslim trust), and instituted a status quo agreement that sees Jews permitted to visit but not pray there. The Temple Mount is one of the issues at the heart of tension between Israel and the Palestinians, with the latter frequently accusing Israel of changing or planning to change the existing arrangements — which Israel firmly denies.
After the prime minister concluded his remarks, Herzog took to the podium, delivering a speech in which he called on Israel to separate the Arab neighborhoods from Jerusalem, urged Netanyahu to seize Trump’s peace offers, and promised to back the prime minister in the “brave, historic” process.
Herzog said Trump came with the message that “the region is ready for peace, the region wants peace.”
“Mr. Prime Minister, this is the time to go to a brave and historic process to separate from the Palestinians and the implementation of the vision of two states for two peoples. This is the time, 50 years on from the Six Day War, to shake off the heavy burden of millions of Palestinians and ensure the continued existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and homeland of the Jewish people for generations,” he said, vowing his party’s political support for peace talks.
“This is the time for leadership, not defeatism, the time to lead and not be led,” he said.
“I urge you, Prime Minister, not to miss the opportunity,” Herzog added. “Don’t allow your name to go down in the history books of the State of Israel as the prime minister who missed the greatest opportunity that Israel has known to avoid 50 more years of tears and bereavement.”
He also took a dig at efforts to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem, saying the city was desperate for other social and economic reforms and citing poverty and the rapidly growing Arab population threatening to eclipse its Jewish population.
“Therefore, will all due respect, it is not the US embassy that is the more important thing the city is lacking, but rather tools and resources and significant decisions on changing directions,” he said.
Following Herzog’s speech, the prime minister addressed the plenum again, emphasizing that moving all embassies — but specifically the US embassy — to Jerusalem was “not a trivial matter.”
“The current situation is absurd,” Netanyahu said, referring to the fact that nearly all international embassies are in Tel Aviv.
The prime minister also defended his comparison of the Manchester bomber to Palestinian terrorists in his response to the deadly attack on Tuesday. He had said that had the attacker been Palestinian, he would have received a stipend by the Palestinian Authority.
“The root of the matter is the stubborn, violent refusal of the Palestinian side to accept the Jewish state — and the capital of the Jews — in any borders,” he said. “Everything else is interesting, important, and certainly open for discussion and dialogue. These are the basic facts.”
Herzog then returned to the plenum again, reiterating his call for peace talks, before the session was dispersed.
The sparring came a day after Trump, in his visit, stressed a unique opportunity for Israel to make peace with the Palestinians and Arab world. While he met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, the US president made no mention of Palestinian statehood or the US embassy move during his visit.