Can the White House save the peace process from destruction

Netanyahu vows tunnel will remain open `always'
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The Independent Online
Israel reopened yesterday the gate to the tunnel under the Muslim quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, the opening of which last week led to the deaths of 55 Palestinians and 14 Israelis.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, earlier told a rally of fundamentalist Christians that the tunnel "is open. It will stay open. It will always stay open."

Mr Netanyahu and his advisers ruled out any concessions over the tunnel and threatened to delay further withdrawal of Israeli forces from Hebron. David Bar-Ilan, an extreme right-winger who is a close aide of the Prime Minister, said the government might have to consider disarming the 30,000- strong Palestinian police if violence continued.

He added: "If such things will continue and such incidents will recur, we will have to think about that."

The refusal to close the tunnel and the threats to disarm the Palestinian police, which would inevitably mean the Israeli army invading Gaza and the Palestinian autonomous enclaves on the West Bank, is increasing tension. Mr Netanyahu continues to insist that there was "nothing spontaneous" about the riots last week, and appears to underestimate the anger among ordinary Palestinians.

When Yasser Arafat was asked by an Israeli reporter if, as alleged by the Israeli government, he had exploited the opportunity provided by the opening of the tunnel to cause a crisis, the Palestinian leader said: "Wait a minute. If you knew that we were waiting for an opportunity, why did you supply one?" He denied that any Palestinian police officer had ordered his men to fire.

It was easy to see yesterday in the Via Dolorosa, on to which the steel gate opens, how the tunnel is already altering the religious status quo in the city. The tunnel exits in the heart of the Muslim quarter of the Old City, and to protect the gate the street is filled with blue-uniformed Jerusalem police in flak jackets and with long batons.

Palestinians walking to their homes were stopped by a line of police blocking the Via Dolorosa. Three plain clothes security men lolled on a grey metal bench nearby. As in Hebron, where a small number of settlers is protected by a large number of soldiers, the continual presence of Israeli security forces will make it difficult for Palestinians to live and work in the area. Mr Bar-Ilan said that Palestinian shopkeepers welcomed the increased custom brought by the tunnel, but the curio shops next to the new gate were on strike yesterday.

Although Mr Netanyahu and the Israeli government insist that the purpose of the tunnel is purely touristic and archaeological, this is demonstrably untrue. Its significance has always been primarily religious. Part of it was dug illegally in the 1980s by fundamentalist Jews. The end of the tunnel closest to the Wailing Wall is used by ultra-orthodox men to pray away from the presence of women. Visitors are asked to wear a paper skull- cap. Elsewhere on the West Bank yesterday there was little violence. Demonstrators were dispersed by Palestinian police.

General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the Israeli chief of staff, said: "The field is completely unstable. The potential of a renewal of violent events is there, every minute." He said the army could not live with the present situation for long. It has already implemented a plan entitled "Briar of Thorns", which envisages progressive escalation if the violence continues, culminating in a military assault on Palestinian enclaves.

The prospect of a wider war stemming from the crisis is for the first time being taken seriously in Israel. The daily Ma'ariv asks: "Is the war in the [occupied] territories likely to degenerate, causing a war between Israel and Syria, and a blow to the peace with Egypt?" The newspaper also asks if Mr Netanyahu consulted with army and security officials when he took the decision to open the tunnel.

Western diplomatic officials say that the real figure for armed Palestinian police may be as high as 60,000 and reoccupation of the autonomous enclaves would spark a conflict which would go on for months.

There is little sign that the crisis over the tunnel has led Mr Netanyahu to rethink his strategy. Since he came to power after winning the general election in May he has delayed implementing stages of the Oslo accords already agreed, notably the evacuation of Hebron, redeployment of troops on the rest of the West Bank, and the release of prisoners.

Mr Netanyahu appears to believe that Palestinian political expectations were inflated by the over-conciliatory policies of the last government. He does not believe that Palestinian nationalism may have its own dynamic. To reduce expectations he inflicted a series of slights on Palestinians, such as knocking down a home for the disabled, refusing to let Mr Arafat's helicopter travel between the West Bank and Gaza and, finally, opening the tunnel. Against the evidence of the last week Mr Netanyahu appears to believe that if he shows that he is tough the Palestinians will moderate their demands.

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