Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waded into an escalating row with Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday, accusing him of “forgetting” that only Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem is keeping Islamic extremism at bay and safeguarding the city’s holy places from destruction by terrorists.
Cameron, long a firm public supporter of Israel, on Wednesday castigated Israel in remarks in the House of Commons for its “shocking” construction of Jewish homes in and around contested East Jerusalem, at the expense of the Palestinians.
Netanyahu, hitting back, said Cameron had evidently forgotten that “only Israeli sovereignty prevents Islamic States and Hamas from setting aflame the holy places in the city, as they are doing across the Middle East.”
Furthermore, Netanyahu added, “only Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem ensures the rule of law for Arab residents and for all.”
Netanyahu made his comments at a parlor meeting with a local council chief, rather than in an official statement, but ensured that they were recorded on camera, Israel’s Channel 2 reported. Israel’s Foreign Ministry had refused to respond to Cameron’s remarks throughout Thursday, because of the British prime minister’s long record of friendship with Israel, and because he had been answering a “provocative” question raised by a Muslim member of Parliament, the Israeli TV report said.
Earlier Thursday, Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barkat also hit out at Cameron, questioning his knowledge of the region and pointing a finger at the UK for its policies during the pre-state British Mandate.
On Wednesday, Cameron had told Britain’s Parliament that Israeli construction in East Jerusalem was “genuinely shocking,” even as he insisted that he was a “great friend of Israel” and defined Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“I am well known for being a strong friend of Israel, but I have to say the first time I visited Jerusalem and had a proper tour around that wonderful city and saw what had happened with the effective encirclement of East Jerusalem, occupied East Jerusalem, it is genuinely shocking,” Cameron said during a weekly question-and-answer session.
Barkat said Cameron’s statements were “incorrect, based on a lack of awareness of facts and the reality on the ground,” in a statement released by the Jerusalem municipality.
The mayor rhetorically asked what it was that specifically shocked Cameron, highlighting investment in schools, infrastructure and community centers in East Jerusalem.
Cameron’s comments were likely referring to a 2007 trip he took before being elected prime minister and before Barkat was elected mayor. During that visit he toured several parts of Jerusalem and the surrounding area, including a promenade that skirts the Jerusalem seam line.
Jerusalem’s municipality is often accused of failing to provide equal services to Arab and Jewish parts of the city, something Barkat has claimed he is working to remedy.
The city’s response included a pointed criticism of Britain’s own administration of Jerusalem from 1923 to 1948.
“The quality of life for East Jerusalem residents is constantly progressing and is far superior to the quality of life for residents in any of our neighboring countries, certainly better than the time of the British Mandate in Israel,” read the Barkat statement in Hebrew.
Notably, however, the reference to the British Mandate was left out of the English translation of statements circulated by the municipality.
A spokeswoman for Barkat said it was normal practice to edit comments in translations in order to make statements appropriate for different audiences.
“Sometimes we add some explanation and sometimes we take things out,” she told The Times of Israel. “In this case, we didn’t need to include the statements on the British Mandate in English as you can assume that the British public know about the Mandate and what went on. Those comments were directed at Israelis who may not.”
Some 200,000 Israelis live alongside about 300,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem, most of them in Jewish neighborhoods built after 1967.
While Israel maintains it has the right to build anywhere in the capital, the international community never recognized its annexation of East Jerusalem, and building there is frequently condemned.
Cameron said on Wednesday: “What this government has consistently done and gone on doing is saying, ‘Yes, we are supporters of Israel but we do not support illegal settlement, we do not want to support what is happening in East Jerusalem, and it’s very important that this capital city is maintained the way it was in the past.’”
Barkat encouraged Cameron to visit Jerusalem again instead of speaking out against it.
“I invite Prime Minister Cameron to work with us to advance the development of the city of Jerusalem, rather than work to build walls and sharpen divisions in the heart of Jerusalem.”
Last week group of British lawmakers on a visit to the region clashed with senior Palestinian Authority officials Wednesday during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, after a PA representative blamed the MPs, as Britons, for causing the entire Israel-Palestinian conflict with the British Mandate.
A lunch meeting between a delegation from the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) and veteran PA negotiator Nabil Shaath turned hostile with Shaath and other Palestinian officials hurling accusations against the group for their implicit support of the 1923-48 British Mandate in Palestine.
That was “years and years before I was even born,” said one of the MPs wryly later.