Rifkind lays the blame at Israel's door

ISRAEL ON THE BRINK

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday spearheaded criticism of Israel over the unrest in Gaza and on the West Bank at tense meeting of the United Nations Security Council, laying the blame on the Israeli government and urging it to take concrete steps to defuse the crisis.

Mr Rifkind told the session, unusually attended by numerous foreign ministers, that the violence had been "predictable". He said Israel should take four initiatives to prove its commitment to the peace process, including the closing, temporarily at least, of the tourist tunnel alongside Jerusalem's Temple Mount, the opening of which provided the spark for the latest fighting.

The presence of so many foreign ministers - in New York for the annual meeting of the UN's General Assembly - signified the seriousness with which the international community is taking the conflagration. A notable absentee was the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher.

Perhaps reflecting the awkwardness of the situation for the US, historically Israel's most committed supporter in the world, Washington instead fielded the more junior Madeleine Albright, its UN ambassador.

A draft resolution explicitly condemning Israel for its policies and demanding the closure of the tunnel was unlikely to approved, diplomatic sources said, because of the certainty of an American veto. Among European countries, France also called for the tunnel to be shut.

In an angry intervention, the Israeli Foreign Minister, David Levy, hit back at countries, including Britain, that were seeking to blame his country for the week's killings. "I come to refute the entirety of the distortions of fact that are being spread here", he declared. "A constant propaganda war is being waged against Israel, filled with hatred and venom ... often even with the encouragement of international statesmen."

Mr Rifkind called on Israel to begin withdrawing troops from the town of Hebron inside the West Bank and to agree to a proposal from Jordan's King Hussein for the creation of an international committee to study how sensitive archaeological issues in Jerusalem might be handled in the future. The tunnel was meant to provide tourists with easier access to archeological findings at the Mount. Finally, Mr Rifkind urged the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to meet swiftly with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

Suggesting that the violence had been avoidable, Mr Rifkind declared: "Fires of frustration have been smouldering because of the lack of progress on Hebron ... the decision to open a tunnel in the Old City of Jerusalem, following on the earlier demolition of a Palestinian Community centre there, added the fuel that produced the conflagration."

Egypt's Foreign Minister, Amr Moussa, said that there was no surprise in the riots and that Egypt had repeatedlywarned Israel that they would happen. "No one can be blamed except the Israeli policy."

In an outspoken meeting with reporters earlier, the Foreign Secretary noted that since its assumption of power, the Netanyahu government had not fully demonstrated its commitment to peace. "There is a lack of clarity as to the overall policy that the Israeli government is pursuing. It is easier to identify the parts of the previous government's policy that the new government does not like than to identify the policies they wish to pursue themselves," he said.

On his proposal that a moratorium be announced on access to the tunnel, Mr Rifkind said: "The opening of the tunnel was very easy; it could very easily be reversed". As to the handover of Hebron, he said Israel should "start getting on with it". "A commitment to start the process in the very near future would be... a clear endorsement of the peace process".

Mr Rifkind warned that the peace process had been put in jeopardy by the week's killings and noted that the difficulty over arranging an early meeting between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat was just one symptom of how far the process has deteriorated. "A few weeks ago a meeting between them could have happened almost automatically," he said.

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