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BIBI'S TUNNEL, YASSER'S WAR

12:00 AM, Oct 14, 1996 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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Netanyahu opened a tunnel. Arafat started a war. It is hard to find a publication or a government on the planet that has not denounced the opening of the tunnel. About the starting of the war, silence.


The starting of the war is the single most important event in the Middle East since the signing of the Oslo peace accords in September 1993. It not only signals an ominous escalation of the violence. It constitutes a fundamental breach of the Oslo bargain, which was founded on the unequivocal renunciation of violence.


One would think that an event this momentous -- and bloody: it has left, as of this writing, 70 people dead -- would come in for some serious criticism around the world. It didn't. The tunnel did. The Arab League issued an incendiary libel that the tunnel was "part of an Israeli Zionist plot to destroy the Aqsa Mosque [and] set up the Temple of Solomon." Arafat echoed the lie, inviting Palestinian mobs into the street "to express their anger" over this "desecration of the holy places." Express they did, storming Israeli checkpoints and installations. The war was on.


Within a few days, even Palestinian spokesmen were admitting that the tunnel was a pretext. It does not, in fact, go under, on, or even touch the Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount. But as soon as the West began to catch up with this reality, there was no rethinking of the justification for Palestinian violence. There was a mere shifting of the ground.


Well, yes. The tunnel was a trumped-up charge. But the Palestinian violence could be understood -- read: justified -- as an expression of pent-up anger over accumulated offenses by the "intransigent" (a perennial Likud-linked adjective once again hauled out for easy use) government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.


What are these violations, these casi belli? In decreasing order of seriousness, if not frequency of citation, they are:


1) Hebron: Israel is now six months behind its promised schedule of withdrawal from this last occupied Palestinian city.


Yes, but the reason that the redeployment was postponed beyond the March 28 deadline is that in February and March Palestinian terrorists set off four terror bombs in Israel, killing 59. Shimon Peres, the archetypal dove who fell over himself to accommodate Yasser Arafat, was prime minister at the time. (What was the provocation for that violence, then?) It was Peres who halted the Hebron withdrawal.


Since taking office, Netanyahu has raised questions about the safety of those 400 Jews left living near the ancient Jewish shrine in Hebron. He demanded changes to security arrangements that might leave these Jews vulnerable to attack by the local Arab population and perhaps even by the armed Palestinian police in the hills above. Netanyahu's concerns were deemed disingenuous, an excuse for indefinite delay. After last month's sacking and murder at Joseph's Tomb, an even smaller Jewish enclave in the Palestinian town of Nablus, one would think that Netanyahu's concerns would be accorded a little more respect. They haven't been.


2) Closure of the West Bank: By not allowing Palestinian workers to come to work in Israel, Netanyahu has caused severe economic misery and hardship.


In fact, the closure, like the Hebron delay, was instituted by the sainted Shimon Peres, also in response to the suicide bombings of February and March. Peres did it as a security measure to make it more difficult for terrorists to infiltrate into Israel. Netanyahu, in his 100 days in office, had already eased these restrictions considerably, more than doubling the number of Palestinians allowed in daily from 22,000 to 50,000. He was negotiating with Arafat for further increases when Arafat called his little war.


3) Settlements: Netanyahu is accused of building new and expanding old Jewish settlements in the territories.


In fact, under the rule of Labor prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Peres, Israeli settlements grew in population by 25,000 over the life of the Oslo agreements. Netanyahu has indicated absolutely clearly that he intends to do precisely what Labor did: allow the thickening of existing settlements. Yes, he reserves the right to establish new settlements. But he has made it equally clear that he has no intention of doing so.


4) Dignity: We are down to the bottom of the barrel. Netanyahu, it seems, was not sufficiently solicitous of the dignity of the Palestinians and, in particular, did not accord proper respect to Arafat, their president. Anthony Lewis, for example, finds it significant that Arafat was once denied the "ability to make a helicopter trip by the Israelis."