| September 28, 1996
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
JERUSALEM - For the ceremonial opening last week of a 2,500-year-old
tunnel that runs near one of Islam's holiest sites, guests
of honor included several ultra-nationalist Jews, including
a Miami Beach philanthropist who had dreamed for years of
The glory, though, was short-lived. Within 24 hours, the
West Bank and Gaza Strip had become battlefields between
Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers _ confrontations
sparked by the opening of the tunnel, which the Palestinians
called a violation of their holy places.
Five days after the tunnel opening, and 72 deaths later,
one question hovers larger than ever: Why did Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu do it, after the previous Labor government
declined out of fear that it would provoke violence?
Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert have said that
the tunnel opening was only to promote tourism.
But sources in Netanyahu's Likud Party and former Labor
government officials cite a different reason: a political
payoff to several key American campaign contributors, including
Irving Moscowitz, 69, a leading Netanyahu supporter in South
Florida and one of the top bankrollers of Jewish settlement
expansion in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The pressure came from campaign contributors whose main
aim is to establish a stronger Jewish foothold in Arab east
The tunnel not only opens a new Jewish-controlled link
in the Old City, but creates a sheltered passageway to the
Western Wall from a well-known Jewish yeshiva, or religious
school, in the Muslim quarter of the Old City.
The tunnel opening also has a practical effect: It saves
at least a 10-minute walk from the Western Wall to the yeshiva,
called Atteret Cohanim, or ``Crown of the Princes.''
Sources say Atteret Cohanim patrons, including American
watch importer Joe Marmelstein and Canadian Mark Blauberg,
pressured Netanyahu to open the Western Wall tunnel after
his victory in May.
At first, the sources said, Netanyahu resisted. But the
yeshiva supporters, who enlisted Mayor Olmert's help, argued
persuasively that if he didn't open the tunnel now, it could
``Netanyahu opened the tunnel for the right wing,'' Eitan
Haber, the former top aide to slain Prime Minister Yitzhak
Rabin, said Saturday. ``It served his purposes to open it.''
Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi added: ``He got
pressure from specific, known people who contributed to
his campaign. It was a decision carefully avoided by the
former government. He did it with the worst possible timing
Because Netanyahu's inner circle in the government is so
tightly controlled _ even several senior advisers have extremely
limited access _ it is difficult to know exactly how Netanyahu
came to make the decision.
But Likud sources told The Herald on Saturday that he made
the decision without consulting two top defense officials
_ Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Shin Bet Security
Chief Ami Ayalon.
``It meant that they couldn't prepare a plan to have troops
ready in case there was a problem,'' a source said.
The tunnel complex, part of which served as an aqueduct,
extends for about 400 yards north from the Western, or Wailing,
It is widely described as one of the most beautiful sites
in Jerusalem, with numerous archways and columns, and lined
with boulders that weigh as much as 370 tons each.
But the archaeological work on the tunnel had for years
been a matter of contention for Muslims. Some of the arguments
involved degrees of rhetoric, including the possibility
that it could cause the collapse of the Al Aqsa mosque _
even though the tunnel does not run under the mosque, the
third-holiest site in Islam.
The biggest concern was that the opening changes the status
quo of the holy places and would greatly increase the number
of Jews emptying out of the tunnel and into the Muslim Quarter
of the Old City. The Supreme Muslim Council said it feared
``changing the Muslim character of the area.''
Just after midnight Tuesday, under the cover of darkness,
Israeli workers punched through a few feet of rock to open
the new exit.
The opening allows groups to start at one end of the tunnel
and exit at the other end, instead of retracing steps. Previously,
the site could handle only 300 tourists a day; now it can
``For eight years, we waited for a political decision to
open it,'' Dan Bahat, the chief archaeologist on the tunnel
project, said Saturday. ``For years, we have been reinforcing
the Muslim structures there. The Muslims should have been
grateful; their structures along the Western Wall are 600
years old, and they were threatened by water and sewage
Bahat said the Palestinians knew about the location of
the tunnel exit.Last year, he said, some Palestinians broke
through. The opening was then covered up.
In April 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin walked through
the tunnel and authorized in principle the groundbreaking
``at the right time.''
Haber, Rabin's top aide, wrote in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper
Friday that Rabin viewed the tunnels as ``an exciting Jewish
site, the most fascinating and breathtaking in Israel, excepting,
of course, the Western Wall itself. A visit to the Western
Wall tunnels was, in his opinion, also a tour to the depth
of the Jewish people's roots.''
The Palestinians described the tunnel opening as ``the
most important thing in the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict,''
Haber wrote, adding that Rabin told him, ``We waited thousands
of years, and we will wait a few more.''
Haber said in an interview Saturday that Rabin received
alarming intelligence reports about the consequences of
opening the tunnel without Palestinian approval.
``Security said the whole West Bank will burn because of
it,'' Haber said.
Shimon Peres, who assumed the premiership after Rabin's
murder, explored opening the tunnel as part of a package
deal. In exchange for allowing the Muslim Waqf, a religious
body, to open Solomon's Stables for one day of prayers earlier
this year, several cabinet ministers assumed that Israel
could open the tunnel.
Olmert, the Jerusalem mayor, said this week that the Waqf,
which administers Muslim holy places, at that time said
it would ensure peace and security when the entrance to
the tunnel was punched through. The Waqf denies it made
such a deal.
Monday night, Netanyahu gave the go-ahead. Work began hours
later. It took less than 60 minutes.
That morning, the prime minister announced the opening
triumphantly on a Paris-bound airplane: ``It should have
been done earlier, and I am proud we did it today. Whoever
has been in the Western Wall tunnel, and I visited it one
year ago, cannot but feel emotion to the very depths of
his soul. We are touching the bedrock of our existence,
without any exaggeration.''
Within hours, nearly the entire Arab world expressed outrage
over the opening. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat called
on Palestinians to protest, and Israeli political commentators
questioned the timing of the tunnel opening _ especially
with Netanyahu off to Paris.
Wednesday, violence erupted. The deaths began to mount.
Even though the Netanyahu government leaked word that he
made the decision Monday night, there was plenty of time
to arrange the ceremonial opening by Tuesday, including
the appearance of Moscowitz, the Miami Beach patron. Others
at the ceremony included representatives of the East Jerusalem
Development Company, the ministries of Religion and Tourism,
and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
Moscowitz has reportedly spent millions of dollars on settlement
projects in the West Bank and Gaza, contributed large sums
to Yesha Council and Golan Heights publicity campaigns,
and is a patron of Atteret Cohanim yeshiva in the Old City.
On Friday, he was back in Miami Beach. He did not return
telephone messages and rarely gives interviews.
A 1994 article on Moscowitz in the Maariv newspaper called
him a ``living legend in right-wing circles in Israel''
and said that his favorite projects were ``land redemption''
_ or the return of the Biblical lands to Israel.
The newspaper said he owned property on the Mount of Olives,
in east Jerusalem, the Old City, and at the Gush Katif junction
in Gaza Strip, where he told settlers: ``I promise you that
my grandchildren will play on this beach.''
Part of Moscowitz's vision for Israel is to take greater
control of the Old City, according to Likud activists. Said
one: ``He is the one to finance any kind of project that
the government feels is too hot to handle.''
It could not be determined late Saturday how much Moscowitz
contributed to the preservation of the Western Wall tunnel.
But an account in the Kol HaIr weekly took special note
of his appearance at the opening: ``One of the prominent
contributors to the (Western Wall Heritage) fund present
was Irving Moscowitz, a patron of an east Jerusalem yeshiva
who has bought a lot of property in east Jerusalem.''
The tunnel was closed Friday and Saturday. The Netanyahu
government said it was shut because of the Jewish holiday
Sukkot. Others said the government closed it to defuse tensions.
Arafat is now demanding that Netanyahu close the tunnel
before the two leaders meet.
Netanyahu has refused. The tunnel, Israeli officials said
Saturday night, is set to reopen at 8 a.m. Sunday.
(c) 1996, The Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight-Ridder/Tribune
COPYRIGHT 1996 Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service