Blocking Mideast Peace
Why the tunnel was opened by Benjamin Netanyahu is key question
By John Donnelly
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 this moment.

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 Jerusalem.

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 never happen.

``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 for Israel.''

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, Wall.

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 take 3,000.

``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 damage.''

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 Information Services.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service

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