Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett suggested Monday that Israel may try to assume a greater degree of control over the highly contested Temple Mount in Jerusalem, long a flash point with the Muslim world.
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Speaking in Jerusalem at the opening of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, Bennett said that the steps already implemented by his office to exercise greater Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem would "ultimately influence the eastern side of Jerusalem, and that will include the Temple Mount.” These steps, he said, include providing better services to Arabs living in the eastern part of the city.
Bennett, who among his other portfolios serves as minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs, was responding to a question about continued control of the Old City site by the Muslim waqf.
“Unfortunately, the Temple Mount today doesn’t allow for the full exercise of freedom of religion, and there is discrimination against Jews there,” he said. “But we have to be very careful when dealing with the Temple Mount because of the huge sensitivity of the site.”
He said he didn’t have a “snap solution” to the issue but that it would eventually be resolved by “gradually increasing the exercise of law in all of Jerusalem.” He noted that although East Jerusalem is part of Jerusalem, “for many years, Israel didn’t actually exercise its sovereignty there” and that it was a “lawless area.”
Asked whether continued construction in the West Bank settlements wasn’t undermining U.S. efforts to strike a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestians, Bennett said: “There’s a land dispute, that’s no secret, but it’s no occupation because you can’t occupy your own home. The Palestinians living in Judaea and Samaria aren’t going anywhere, and the Jews aren’t going anywhere.”
Still, Bennett said that anyone who suggested that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was an anti-Semite for expressing other views was “flatly wrong.”
“America’s our friend, our biggest friend, but we can agree not to agree,” he said.
Bennett's remarks come just a day after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told a group of Israeli students that the Palestinian Authority would not agree to share sovereignty over the Al-Aqsa Mosque (Temple Mount) in Jerusalem in the course of a peace deal with Israel, but would allow freedom of worship for Jews in the Western Wall Plaza.
Addressing about 300 Israeli students at a meeting in Ramallah, organized by the Lobby for the Promotion of a Solution for the Israeli-Arab Conflict and by a Palestinian group for promoting Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, Abbas added that he sees no reason to re-divide Jerusalem, adding that a Palestinian municipality could be established in East Jerusalem, which will coordinate with an Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem via a higher body.