Historical sites are important, but not at the cost of fresh peace talks

One would be hard pressed to find Jews who do not value the Torah and the Holy Land. Every square inch of biblical Israel is significant to the Jewish people.

But many of those same biblical sites are just as important to Palestinians. And there’s the rub.

We understand why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently declared the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb as Jewish historical sites warranting new funding for upkeep.

However, we question his timing. Because both sites are in the West Bank, the declaration deepened Palestinian suspicions that Israel is insincere about a peace deal that would transfer parts of the West Bank to a new Palestinian state.

Israel should be doing everything reasonable to bring the Palestinians to the table. This just gives them an easy excuse to say “no.”

As our story on page 12 notes, of all the current bad news on the Middle East diplomatic front, this declaration may prove the most inflammatory. Netanyahu says politics played no role in his decision. Even if true, there can be no avoiding the subsequent political fallout.

Netanyahu says he wants Jewish youth to be able to visit the sites and connect with their heritage. In a perfect world, he would be absolutely correct. But this is not a perfect world.

Israel has long understood that the bumpy road to peace has required painful sacrifices. Giving up the Sinai and the Gaza Strip, not to mention the release of hundreds of jailed Palestinian terrorists over the years, attest to that.

Thus it makes little sense to make this declaration now. Not because we dispute the historical significance of the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb. That is beyond measure.

But such a declaration has real consequences on the ground. Israel would certainly renovate the sites, spurring tourism and perhaps prompting more Jewish settlement.

Despite a government spokesman saying the declaration does not change the status quo, in fact it does.

Palestinian protests quickly erupted in Hebron, and they may spread. In the near term, this could cause Israel security headaches. Or worse.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some issues are black and white, the moral clarity apparent. Whether stopping suicide bombers, or combating efforts to undermine Israel’s legitimacy as the Jewish homeland, we know what’s right and what’s wrong.

But in this case, we would urge the Israeli government to at least postpone the declaration, turn down the political heat and get back to the business of peace talks.