Isaac Herzog says he sees Saudi Arabia role at Jerusalem holy sites

Isaac Herzog says he sees Saudi Arabia role at Jerusalem holy sites

Suggestion from opposition leader likely to offend Jordan, which is current custodian of Al-Aqsa Mosque, Dome of the Rock

Israeli flags flutter in the wind as the Dome of the Rock is seen in the background, in Jerusalem's Old City, on December 5, 2017.(AFP Photo/Thomas Coex)
Israeli flags flutter in the wind as the Dome of the Rock is seen in the background, in Jerusalem's Old City, on December 5, 2017.(AFP Photo/Thomas Coex)

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog has indicated that Saudi Arabia could play a key role in Jerusalem, taking responsibility for administering Muslim holy sites in any peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

In an interview published Tuesday with Elaph, a London-based independent Arabic news site and one of the most popular news sites in the Arab world, Herzog said “Saudi Arabia could play a big role in the issue [of Jerusalem].”

Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog attends a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 8, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“When we reach the stage [during negotiations] of talking about Jerusalem and the holy sites, such as Al-Aqsa, I think there must be a Saudi role and responsibility for the holy sites,” he said according to a translation provided by the Middle East Eye Website.

“Saudi Arabia has experience in managing sacred spaces in Mecca and Medina,” he said. “I think we should offer Saudi Arabia a central role in this matter.”

Jerusalem, and control of the Temple Mount — which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock — is one of the thorniest issues in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Muslim worshippers perform Friday noon prayer near the Dome of the Rock shrine in Jerusalem’s Old City’s al-Aqsa mosque compound on the Temple Mount, December 22, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

The issue has again come to the forefront after US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, although Trump has said his decision merely recognized the reality that Jerusalem already serves as Israel’s capital and wasn’t meant to prejudge the final borders of the city.

Following Trump’s December 6 announcement, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the US relinquished its traditional role as the mediator of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. He has also refused to meet with American officials.

Herzog’s suggestion is likely to offend Jordan, which already acts as custodian of the flashpoint religious site, which is the holiest site in Judaism and third holiest to Muslims.

Jordan was the second Arab state to sign a peace deal with Israel and the two countries enjoy close security cooperation, although ties have been strained in recent months after an Israeli security guard shot and killed a teen, who tried to stab him, and a bystander at an embassy residence.

In the interview Herzog also spoke of the changes happening in the region, his plans for peace with the Palestinians, and how he forfeited his political position in an attempt to reach a comprehensive agreement with Israel’s neighbors.

The opposition leader said that several countries in the Middle East feel they can no longer rely on the United States or Europe to protect them against the Iranian regional threat after the 2015 nuclear deal — which he said allowed the regime’s hegemonic ambitions to move forward.

This, he maintained, created a unique opportunity for Israel.

“At this moment there is a new situation where several states have begun seeking a regional partner in order to stop Iran,” Herzog said. “These states have stopped believing in the global powers because they sold them out to Iran. These states view Israel as their sole partner who can help them.”

He said that many of Israel’s neighbors also share its desire to stop Islamist extremism, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudia Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman. This created an opening for the possibility of closer relationships between the Jewish state and surrounding countries.

Members of the ‘This is Bahrain’ group during a visit to Israel in December 2017. (Screen capture: Hadashot TV)

Herzog spoke about his attempt to bring his Zionist Union coalition into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in 2016 — a move which may have ultimately led to his ouster as Labor party leader last year.

“I began discussions to join the government in 2016, which reached their peak in 2016,” he said. “”The deal was that I would take the Foreign Ministry and lead negotiations with the Palestinians and other Arab states, so that we could create a balanced coalition which would minimize the power of the settlers and extremists… While these discussions were happening I was meeting with important Arab leaders from Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf.”

He said that although the move was political suicide, he didn’t want to pass up the “golden opportunity.”

“I accept that I was prepared to sacrifice my political future, and this is what happened,” he said. “I didn’t want any more bloodshed and there was a golden opportunity and hope for the two peoples, and I still believe in this.”

Herzog has said in the past that the move fell through after Netanyahu caved to domestic political pressures.

Herzog later lost a leadership challenge in the party to Avi Gabbay, though he remains head of opposition in the Knesset.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, meets with Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, at the president’s office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, August 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

When asked whether he believes a peace deal with the Palestinians was truly possible, he said that one had to take the long-term view, and create the right conditions.

“I want us to have a true partner,” he said. Herzog noted that he had met several times with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and discussed the issue.

“I think that in light of the present situation and along with the regional track, it is possible to advance (peace) with gradual steps,” he said. “I do not agree with what [US President Donald] Trump thinks about an immediate solution. It is possible to make progress in stages over 10 years, by building institutions of the Palestinian state and transferring additional authority to the Palestinians in other areas in exchange for an end to incitement and full partnership.”

However, Herzog also stated that in his opinion, most Israelis and Palestinians currently did not see any hope, and negotiations were at a dead end. He warned that with no apparent path forward, unilateral moves would become the next step.

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