Monday, February 4, 2019

Exclusive: Israel, France in secret talks over access to ancient tombs - Ariel Kahana

by Ariel Kahana

Talks are deadlocked due to France's demand that Israel recognize its sovereignty at the site and forego any future claim.

The Tombs of the Kings site in east Jerusalem
Photo: Amit Ararat 

Israel and France are holding secret talks aimed at opening the ancient compound known as the Tombs of the Kings near the Old City of  Jerusalem, Israel Hayom has learned.

The catacomb has been under the administration of the French Consulate in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah for the past 150 years owing to international agreements dating back to the Ottoman period.

Scholars believe the tombs date back to the Second Temple Period. Queen Helena of Adiabene, a convert to Judaism, was believed to have been buried in a special sarcophagus that was found at the site, which was subsequently put on display at Paris' Louvre museum along with other sarcophagi revealed by excavations there.

The French Jewish community along with religious figures in Israel have long asked to obtain access to the site, where according to Jewish tradition  Ben Kalba Sabbua - a famous resident of the city during the Roman period – is believed to have been buried.

The secret talks have been going on for the past three years, but the French Consulate has claimed the site cannot be reopened until its renovations there are completed. That claim has been met with skepticism by Israeli authorities, who note that the renovations appear to have been going on for about a decade.

According to sources at the Foreign Ministry, France wants to secure two Israeli concessions before it changes its policy. The first, that Israel recognizes French sovereignty over the site and the second, that Israel commits not to mount a legal challenge over ownership of the site.

Israel has rejected both demands thus far.

Sources informed Israel Hayom that when President Reuven Rivlin visited France last month, he was surprised when his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron presented his country's demands for the site. Rivlin did not respond because he was not familiar with the details of the case.

The issue has come up multiple times in conversations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Macron.

Ariel Kahana


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