Yasser Arafat summoned his Palestinian cabinet into emergency session last night amid demands to boycott the next round of peace negotiations, due to begin tomorrow. The Palestinians' chief negotiator, Saeb Erakat, warned the Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, that he was pushing Israelis and Palestinians towards confrontation and disaster. "Such actions," Dr Erakat told The Independent, "don't leave a peace process to speak about. The policy of this Israeli government is the fait accompli. Mr Netanyahu thinks the peace process is peace for the Israelis, but not for the Palestinians and the other Arabs. He is not treating us as partners. He is telling us we can go to hell."
Israel's Religious Affairs Ministry began excavating the controversial tunnel in 1968, a year after Israeli troops conquered the Old City, and finished digging in 1985. A door was cut at the Via Dolorosa end three years ago, but the then Labour government kept it sealed for fear of provoking the Palestinians.
Mr Netanyahu's coalition of right-wing and religious parties authorised it to be opened after the Yom Kippur fast on Monday night. The door will serve as the exit to a tourist and pilgrim route, displaying Jewish, Muslim and early-Christian masonry along a buried extension of the retaining wall Herod built for his Jewish Temple.
The oldest structure dates back to the Hasmonean kings in the second century BC.
The Palestinians have consistently opposed the excavations. Muslim authorities feared the Jews were trying to take over the Temple Mount from underneath. The victorious Israeli defence minister, Moshe Dayan, deliberately left the Mount in Muslim hands after the 1967 war. In fact, as Dan Bahat, a former Jerusalem district supervisor of archaeology, said recently: "There are not, and never have been, any excavations on or under the Temple Mount." Palestinians were also worried about damage to medieval Muslim buildings still standing above the tunnel. None has been destroyed, but some have suffered cracks. Unesco has endorsed the Palestinian view.
The Israeli timing looks like another example of Mr Netanyahu's left hand not knowing, or perhaps not caring, what the right hand is doing. On the eve of his maiden visit to Britain, France and Germany, the tunnel- opening threatens to deepen European doubts about the new regime's commitment to the peace process.
It will also encourage Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab signatories to the treaties, to keep their distance. Cairo's criticism sharpened on Monday, when the Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister, Fathi Shazli, said Mr Netanyahu needed a psychiatrist to treat his "sick fears on security". In Jordan, Crown Prince Hassan postponed a visit to Israel, planned for next month. Amman did not want to be seen as Mr Netanyahu's only Arab friend.Reuse content