Liberman: Israel won’t cede religious sites during papal visit
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Liberman: Israel won’t cede religious sites during papal visit

In first meeting of high-level defense committee, foreign minister also says Palestinians don’t want peace

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman in May. (photo credit: Flash90)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman in May. (photo credit: Flash90)

Israel will not hand over sovereignty of select Christian religious sites during the pope’s upcoming visit, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said Tuesday, dispelling rumors of an imminent deal between Israel and the Vatican.

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews rallied against the ongoing negotiation between Israel and the Vatican outside a sensitive site on Mount Zion, sacred to Christians, Jews, and Muslims on Monday evening.

While no official announcement has been made, negotiations between Israel and the Vatican are ongoing, and President Shimon Peres told an Italian newspaper during a visit to the Vatican last April that a compromise had been reached on the Cenacle site, and that “99 percent” of the issues concerning the site had been addressed.

The building houses the site revered by Jews as the tomb of the Biblical King David and, above it, the room believed by Christians to have been the site of the Last Supper.

“The State of Israel has no intention of signing with the Vatican, during the pope’s coming visit, on an agreement to transfer the responsibility of sites like these or others, or other gestures,” Liberman said.

Speaking at the first Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting after a six-month impasse, Liberman briefed its members on the pressing security issues facing Israel, including the suspended peace talks and Iran.

Liberman charged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with being more concerned with his political standing than with securing a viable peace agreement, and said the Palestinians will not accept a deal regardless of whatever concessions Israel would be prepared to offer.

He maintained that the current peace talks stalemate would likely continue due to the PA president’s preoccupation with his legacy.

“[Abbas] has no interest in reaching an agreement with Israel, regardless of what Israel offers him,” he said. “More than what Ehud Barak and Olmert gave, it’s impossible to give, and then too he refused. What is important to Abu Mazen [Abbas] today is just the legacy he leaves behind.”

In a veiled criticism of the prime minister, Liberman said, “The State of Israel has not yet used the tools at its disposal to deal with the unilateral steps the Palestinians have taken until now” — a reference to Abbas’s appeal to 15 United Nations agencies. The Palestinians are nevertheless wary of applying to international organizations due to fears that US funding would be pulled in response, he added.

Yet despite Palestinian concerns and protestations with regard to their budget, Abbas continues to grant monthly stipends to security prisoners that amount to tens of millions, Liberman said.

With regard to Iran, the foreign minister decried the international community’s general approach, “which is to contain the threats and avoid as much possible dealing with them.”

As it stands, Iran will likely come out of the current negotiations retaining much of its nuclear capabilities, which will establish the country “as a [nuclear] threshold state that can break out the bomb in a short time,” Liberman maintained.

“This is a troubling state of affairs, but regardless it looks like the permanent agreement will be signed in September of this year,” he added.

The foreign minister also alluded to new legislation that would make it impossible to free prisoners who have been sentenced to life in prison, targeting Israel’s practice of freeing prisoners in peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The bill — sponsored by Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked and Hatnua MK David Tzur — was approved by ministers this week and is now set to go to the Knesset for a first reading.

“It’s time the prime minister brings the conclusions of the Shamgar Commission to a cabinet decision, to adopt those recommendations,” he said. (The Shamgar Commission has in the past made recommendations similar to the provisions of the bill that is currently set to be voted on.)

On his first day in the position, the new chairman of the committee, Ze’ev Elkin, pledged to balance his group’s commitment to foreign and defense issues.

“We have an excellent Foreign Ministry that isn’t always sufficiently prepared. From my experience with the ministry, I know that foreign affairs are an integral part of defense affairs. As chairman of the committee, I intend to invest in foreign [affairs], no less than in the defense issues.”

AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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