Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to try to tighten Israelis' link to the Jewish people's historical homeland and the history of Zionism. This week he asked the cabinet to approve a plan for restoring and preserving historical and archaeological sites. At the last minute, he says, at the urging of his Shas coalition partners, Netanyahu added Rachel's Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs to the list of "heritage sites" that will be restored and preserved with government funds. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned the decision might "lead to a religious war" and Palestinian youths demonstrated near Rachel's Tomb and in the center of Hebron.
The unnecessary confrontation over the sites threatens to turn a welcome initiative - one that deepens the link to Jewish heritage and the country's history - into a focus of contention with the Palestinians and the entire Arab world. The prime minister no doubt remembers the bloody price of his hasty decision to open the Western Wall tunnel in 1996, yet he has chosen once again to strike a match next to a powder keg. And once again he is doing it while an international effort is underway to renew dialogue and prevent flare-ups between Israel and the Palestinians. Once again he is portraying the Palestinian Authority as an empty vessel and adding to Hamas' stature.
The cabinet's decision to extensively alter important sites in the West Bank clearly violates the commitment to refrain from changing the status quo in the territories, whose fate is subject to negotiations. If there is an urgent need for maintenance work at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, it would have been suitable to discuss this first with the PA's leaders and to coordinate plans with the Islamic institution that handles the site where both Jews and Muslims worship, rather than arrogantly asserting ownership.
Anyone who declares holy places in Hebron and Bethlehem to be Israeli heritage sites should not be surprised when right-wing activists seize a synagogue in Jericho. This is what happens under a government that has made acting belligerently toward its neighbors a strategy and provoking the world a policy. Netanyahu must not turn Jewish heritage sites into a new chapter in Israel's long combat heritage. He should announce that joint restoration work at Rachel's Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs will be one of the first subjects of peace talks with the Palestinians.
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