DAVOS, Switzerland — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Thursday that Israel would retain control over Jerusalem’s holy sites in any peace deal, while ensuring “complete religious rights for those of all faiths.” His comments came amid speculation over the content of US President Donald Trump’s peace plan.
“We’re keeping the holy sites and the status quo, and I want to stress that under any arrangement that we have, we will always keep the status quo at the Temple Mount and all of the holy sites,” Netanyahu said. “Our position is that Jerusalem should remain united under Israel’s sovereignty with complete religious rights for those of all faiths.”
By “holy sites,” Netanyahu was presumably referring in particular to sites of religious significance in Jerusalem’s Old City, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war and subsequently annexed. These include the Temple Mount, the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
In an onstage interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria at the World Economic Forum, Netanyahu also praised Trump’s announcement December 6 that his administration formally recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and rejected speculation that the declaration would embolden Israel to annex territory in the West Bank.
“I think it’s a complete distortion,” he said. “I think they [the Palestinians] want to govern themselves, which I don’t have any problem with.”
Netanyahu noted that in a 2009 speech at Bar Ilan University, he had said he backed the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognized Israel as a Jewish state. “The principles have remained the same,” he said. “The Palestinians should have all the powers to govern themselves but none of the powers to harm us.”
He added, “Israel will retain the overriding security control, but other than that, the Palestinians will be able to govern themselves.”
Netanyahu acknowledged that this amounted to less than full sovereignty for the Palestinian state, but said, “US troops remain in Europe 80 years later.”
“I don’t want to annex the Palestinians and I don’t want them to live as subjects,” he said.
Netanyahu also insisted Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital did not signal the end of the two-state solution.
“President Trump made history by recognizing history, by recognizing those indelible facts of the past and the present,” he said. “I think he did a great service for peace because peace can only be made by truth.”
He also lauded the “very able team” in the Trump administration that was working toward a peace deal, calling Trump’s approach “refreshing,” while bemoaning Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s unwillingness to negotiate with Israel.
“If you want to have peace, you have to negotiate peace, and the fact is that Abbas refuses to negotiate,” he said. “They always got away with walking away because they’re basically pampered by the international community.”
The Palestinians, he said, “have to stop kvetching.”
Earlier Thursday, in unscripted remarks to the press, Trump said the US would no longer transfer monetary aid to the Palestinians unless they entered peace negotiations with Israel, and excoriated the Palestinian leadership’s reaction to his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“That money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace, because I can tell you that Israel does want to make peace, and they’re going to have to want to make peace, too, or we’re going to have nothing to do with it any longer,” he said.
Sitting alongside Netanyahu before a bilateral meeting in Davos, Trump called Palestinian Authority officials’ unwillingness to meet with members of his administration — including US Vice President Mike Pence during his visit to the region last week — “disrespectful.”
Trump said the team he had tasked with brokering the coveted Israeli-Palestinian peace accord — led by his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner — had already solidified its peace plan.
“We have a proposal for peace,” he said. “It’s a great proposal for the Palestinians. I think it’s a very good proposal for Israel. It covers a lot of the things we’ve over the years discussed and agreed on,” he added, refusing to answer questions about the content of his administration’s plan.
In a briefing to Israeli reporters after his conversation with Zakaria, Netanyahu said Trump’s Jerusalem declaration had “exposed” the Palestinians’ desire to “escape from a genuine discussion on real peace that includes recognition of a Jewish state that is in control of its own security.”
Asked by The Times of Israel if the issue of Israeli settlements was raised during his meeting with Trump, Netanyahu shook his head no.
“President Trump trusts in the negotiations,” he said. “He knows to set clear stances, but also to leave things vague. He made a historic and explicit statement on Jerusalem and he expects both sides to come and grapple with the plan proposed by his team. We are ready for the plan at any time.”
Turning to his sit-down with Trump, Netanyahu said, “I left the conversation very encouraged, not only because of our close friendship with the Americans but beyond that, we spoke about Iran’s ability to establish military bases in Syria — and also Lebanon — and to develop precision weapons in Syria,” the prime minister said, reiterating a primary concern of his.
“The president conveyed a full understanding of the policy that I lead regarding these two aggressive measures aimed at changing the balance of power,” he said.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.