When Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu gave the order to blast open a new entrance to a 2,000-year-old water tunnel on Monday night, did he realise that he was simultaneously blasting away the last faint hopes of peace with the Palestinians?
As the explosion of violence, which began the moment the tunnel opened, spread and intensified into warfare yesterday, all the indications were that Mr Netanyahu should have known exactly what he was doing.
The notion of opening a second entrance to the tunnel - used by the Hasmoneans of the second century BC to bring water to the Jewish Temple - had been discussed for years by successive Israeli governments. On the plus side, a new entrance would ease the flow of tourists through the popular site. On the minus side, because the Palestinians have long suspected that the tunnel is part of an Israeli design to dig under Temple Mount itself, the reaction was always likely to be angry.
The proposal was raised shortly before the Israeli elections last May, and the Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, on the advice of his worried intelligence chiefs, decided the tourists would just have to suffer the one-entrance bottleneck a little longer.
Mr Netanyahu, according to Israeli news reports yesterday, did not consult all his intelligence chiefs before he approved the project. But those whose assessments he did seek warned him that the timing was hardly auspicious. Israeli-Palestinian relations have nose-dived in the 100 or so days he has held power; it would only take a small spark to ignite the flames of confrontation.
That Mr Netanyahu heard this advice but disregarded it - and that he then set off on a goodwill visit to Britain, France and Germany - simply defies explanation. If he did not believe the warnings of Israel's professional security analysts, he is unconscionably foolish. If he did believe them, and was prepared to provoke direct conflict with the Palestinians in order to make an absurd point of principle about Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, why did he not at least stay at home to oversee the crisis, rather than be forced, as he was yesterday, to cut short a trip that turned into a diplomatic nightmare and hurry back to Jerusalem?
Mr Netanyahu's behaviour over this affair is entirely consistent with much of what he has done in his few sorry months as Prime Minister. If the secretive opening of the new tunnel wiped out the last remaining hopes of peaceful dialogue, it was almost four months of determined Israeli stonewalling that provided the depressing context.
While reiterating, almost daily, his professed commitment to honouring the peace accords he inherited from the Rabin and Peres Labour governments, he has done nothing to demonstrate this commitment. There has been no Israeli troop pull-out from Hebron, no opening of the "safe-passage" route from Gaza to the West Bank, no discussion of the further West Bank redeployment Israel was pledged to carry out in early September. Instead, illegal Palestinian buildings have been enthusiastically demolished in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and plans approved for the construction of new Israeli settlements.
Yes, Mr Netanyahu did, finally, reluctantly, meet Mr Arafat at the start of this month. But, as he had done at previous top-level summits with Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak, and Jordan's King Hussein, he talked handsomely about imminent progress, but still gave no orders to move the troops out of Hebron. He insisted final modifications to the agreement still had to be made; his army commanders contradicted him, making plain that they were perfectly satisfied with the existing accord, and were merely waiting for his orders.
Like President Mubarak and King Hussein, Mr Arafat felt betrayed. His people, badly hurting from the economic impact of the prolonged West Bank and Gaza Strip closures, effectively gave up on peace, hence this week's massive outburst of anger.
The question now, of course, is whether some semblance of calm can be restored, and any kind of dialogue resumed. On the Palestinian side, it is by no means clear that Mr Arafat can still exert full control over his 30,000-strong police force - armed by Israel, in happier times.
On the Israeli side, it is equally unclear whether Mr Netanyahu has the will or the courage to rectify the mistakes that destroyed the peace efforts. It is, after all, so much easier to stay on the offensive, as the Prime Minister and his side have been doing for the past three days: to blame Mr Arafat for "inciting the violence"; to suggest that the true character of the Palestinians is now being exposed, and that making peace with them was always an impossibility; and to deride the Rabin and Peres governments for giving the Palestinians guns, and thus turning the unequal stones- against-rifles intifada of 1987 to 1993 into the all-out warfare of 1996.
David Horovitz is managing editor of `The Jerusalem Report' news magazine.
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