Blocking Mideast Peace
Over a Week Ago, Netanyahu Rejected a Proposal by Kahalani to Delay Opening the Tunnel
by Akiva Eldar
Originally published 27 September 1996
in Ha'aretz

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a non-profit organization associated with the National Religious Party (Mafdal), is in charge of managing the controversial tunnel, which charges visitors a fee, while the state has invested public money in the site through the Society for the Development of East Jerusalem. This information appears in a document submitted by former minister Yossi Beilin to the government of Shimon Peres early this year and is characterized as "a public scandal that demands investigation".

The document, brought to the attention of several ministers in Benjamin Netanyahu's government, includes a recommendation to delay opening the new tunnel exit until after the elections, and even then to do so at the appropriate moment and while engaging in dialogue and reaching understanding with the Muslim religious authorities in Jerusalem.

Last Thursday, Netanyahu rejected a proposal made by Avigdor Kahalani, the Minister for Internal Security, to delay opening the tunnel until implementation of the redeployment in Hebron which might have lessened the anticipated Palestinian protest.

Deterioration of the tunnel incident began on September 4th following an order to halt restoration work at Solomon's Stables issued by the City of Jerusalem, without holding senior level discussions about the implications of that decision. In response to the order, Waqf leaders gave orders to step up the pace of work. Police officials anticipated that enforcement of the order would provoke riots in Jerusalem, so the Prime Minister decided not to enforce it, but instead to allow for opening of the tunnel.

Netanyahu based his decision on a claim that the Waqf had agreed to a deal eight months ago: opening the tunnel in exchange for allowing Solomon's Stables to be made into a shelter from rain for Ramadan worshipers. Netanyahu called together a small forum of ministers who all supported the opening of the tunnel, with the exception of Kahalani. From interviews with officials involved in contacts with the Waqf, it appears that Arye Amit, Police Commander of the Jerusalem District, informed the Waqf leader about the opening of the tunnel and the agreement of the government to allow for renovation of Solomon's Stables. Nevertheless, these officials emphasized that agreement was not reached about the deal.

In a memo submitted to Beilin by the archaeologist Meir Ben Dov who was in charge of excavations at the Western Wall in the 1980s, Ben Dov noted that Yosef Burg, who was then Interior Minister, halted all activity on the tunnel in 1987 and, following an incident between Jews and Arabs, Burg gave orders to block the entrance.

The appointment of Zevulun Hammer as Religious Minister in the National Unity Government led to renewed activity at the tunnel and transfer of its management to the non-profit associated with the Mafdal. The Shamir government later rejected a plan for excavating a short side tunnel. Ben Dov defined this plan as "perverse and superfluous at a time like this". He noted that right wingers and circles close to Hammer were pushing it, as they had an interest in sowing unrest in the region and Jerusalem. Added Ben Dov, "It's hard to understand how the Society for the Development of East Jerusalem could be drawn into an escapade like this. This activity can bring about unnecessary flare-ups."

Copyright 1996, Ha'aretz. For education and discussion only. Not for commercial use.

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