Netanyahu Returns to the Western Wall Tunnels, the Bedrock of His Political Existence

The Western Wall Tunnels symbolized the chronic chaos of Netanyahu’s first government. Today he’s returning there for a cabinet meeting – more confident than ever

Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet meets in the Western Wall Tunnels, May 28, 2017.
Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet meets in the Western Wall Tunnels, May 28, 2017. Emil Salman

Israel's government is holding its weekly ministerial meeting on Sunday in the Western Wall Tunnels. Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet is taking a break from the stuffy meeting room in the Prime Minister’s Office, as it does every few months, and going on a field trip. The location is not surprising as it’s the Six-Day War's 50th anniversary, and while even Donald Trump wouldn't allow Israeli officials to accompany him to the Western Wall (as the world doesn’t recognize Israel’s sovereignty over East Jerusalem), the government is anxious to demonstrate that Israel in charge. But the venue is significant for other reasons, as well.

If anyone had suggested 20 years ago on the 30th anniversary of the war and the Western Wall’s capture (or liberation if you prefer) that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government would be holding a meeting celebrating 50 years of “reunification” of Jerusalem inside the Western Wall Tunnels, it would have sounded too outlandish even for satire. Twenty years ago, Netanyahu was just ending the first year of his first term in office. It had been a bumpy and chaotic ride, strewn with casualties and mishaps. The youngest and least-experienced prime minister in Israel’s history was still struggling to get a grip on the machinery of power, and the screw-ups were accumulating.

Only a month earlier, he had escaped by the skin of his teeth an indictment that would have almost certainly forced him to resign after less than a year in office. Then-Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein had decided, despite the police investigators’ recommendation, not to indict him in the Bar-On-Hebron affair. The investigation had unearthed evidence that Netanyahu conspired to appoint Roni Bar-On, a Jerusalem lawyer close to political figures, as attorney general as part of a deal with Shas to support an agreement with the Palestinian Authority where Israeli forces would pull out of most of Hebron, leaving only a small enclave of settlers under Israeli control. In return, Bar-On was expected to not pursue a conviction of Shas leader Arye Dery over bribery charges. 

Rubinstein ruled that the evidence against Netanyahu was inconclusive and indicted only Dery, but the “public report” he published on the case was damning enough for some senior Likud ministers to publicly consider resigning and calling for the prime minister to step down. They backed down, but it was the culmination of a bruising first year in office and it had all begun in the tunnel.

Benjamin Netanyahu in the Western Wall Tunnels, February 28, 2015.
Marc Israel Sellem

The Hebron Agreement with then-Palestinian President Yasser Arafat had been a deal Netanyahu was avoiding. Hebron was the only major Palestinian city that the previous governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres hadn’t pulled out of, though it was in the list of cities Israel had committed to handing over to the Palestinian Authority in the Oslo II Accord. Hebron, with its Tomb of Patriarchs and millenia of Jewish history. Hebron, the only Palestinian city with settlers living inside it. Though he had fought it tooth and nail as leader of the opposition, Netanyahu was committed now as prime minister to fulfilling the Oslo Accords. He was committed as well to his right-wing base not to budge from the “City of the Forefathers.”

Two-and-a-half months after taking office, Netanyahu met with Arafat for the first time at the Erez Crossing. It was a frosty meeting, and nothing was agreed upon. The Palestinians demanded an Israeli pullback from Hebron and had Oslo in their favor. Netanyahu prevaricated; the breakthrough was to come elsewhere. 

The Western Wall Tunnels, a series of subterranean spaces excavated for decades by archaeologists – extending north from beneath today’s Western Wall plaza, exposing the foundations of the Second Temple compound built by King Herod, as well as other earlier buildings from ancient Jewish Jerusalem – was an ongoing source of tension between Israelis and Palestinians. The tunnels ran under the houses of today’s Muslim Quarter and though the excavations never extended under Temple Mount, the Palestinians continuously claimed that the “the Jews” were digging under the Haram al-Sharif mosques to weaken their foundations and eventually destroy them.

From the mid-1980s tourists were allowed in to the tunnels but passage there was often cramped due to the single entrance from the Western Wall Plaza. The furthest point of the tunnels reached the Via Dolorosa in the Muslim Quarter. Opening up an exit to the street would be a simple act of knocking through 80 centimeters of brick and plaster, but the smallest construction around Temple Mount needs authorization from the very top. 

Benjamin Netanyahu at the Western Wall Tunnels, May 28, 2017.
@Ofirgendelman / Israeli Prime Minister's Spokesperson

Rabin had authorized it, in principle, but ordered to wait for a more convenient time, when it would not jeopardize talks with the Palestinians. Peres had ruled the same. So had Netanyahu when he took office in June 1996. Three months later, however, the directive was reversed and Netanyahu ordered Muslim Quarter's tunnel exit opened on September 24, the night after Yom Kippur. Netanyahu triumphantly called the tunnel “the bedrock of our existence.”

None of those involved agree on the sequence of events. Then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordehai claimed he was notified only a few hours in advance and not consulted on the implications. The Waqf, the Muslim religious trust that manages the Haram al-Sharif mosques, denied they were notified, much less that they gave any approval. Netanyahu has never given a public account of the events, but sources close to him have blamed then-Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert for orchestrating the event and former Shin Bet Chief Ami Ayalon for saying that it would not lead to serious repercussions from the Palestinians. Olmert, who at the time as mayor was much more right-wing than he was during his future tenure as prime minister, also blames Ayalon for giving the OK. Ayalon insists that his professional opinion was that opening the tunnel was possible but only under the right circumstances.

The only undisputed truth is that the tunnel's exit was opened that night on Netanyahu’s orders. The next day, Arafat seized upon the incident as a desecration of Haram al-Sharif and called upon Palestinians to respond in force. Over the next three days, open warfare broke out between Palestinian security forces and the IDF across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The ferocity of the fighting – and the fact that the Palestinian police with whom they had been carrying out since the Oslo Agreements joint patrols – were now firing on them caught the IDF by surprise, and they responded with overwhelming firepower. In three days of fighting, 17 Israelis and 100 Palestinians were killed until an uneasy truce was established. 

The “Tunnel Riots” were Netanyahu’s first major blunder and put in to motion a sequence of events where U.S. President Bill Clinton summoned Netanyahu and Arafat to an emergency summit in Washington, where Netanyahu was pressured into agreeing in principle to pull back from Hebron. The Hebron Agreement itself was hammered out in four months, and the right's staunch opposition led to Netanyahu’s courtship of Shas and the Bar-On-Hebron scandal and investigation. The events leading from the hasty opening of the tunnel, through the bloodshed, Netanyahu’s capitulation in Washington, the abortive appointment of an attorney general and the first corruption investigation of a sitting prime minister remain the abiding memories of Netanyahu’s first year in office. 

Netanyahu meeting Yasser Arafat in the Gaza Strip, 1997.
© Jim Hollander / Reuters

Today Netanyahu is back at “the bedrock of our existence” with his fourth government. Ironically, the only minister around the table today who served in the first Netanyahu government is Tzachi Hanegbi, then the Justice Minister who signed off on the Bar-On appointment. Dery, who in 1996 was forbidden from serving as a minister due to his first indictment will also be there today as interior minister, a rehabilitated ex-con. 

There will be much talk at the festive cabinet meeting of the symbolism of the venue at the heart of the Eternal Unified Capital. Many in the deep tunnel under Jerusalem, however, will be reflecting on the symbolism of Netanyahu’s longevity. Twenty years later, he is still there. Olmert is in prison. Arafat is dead. Clinton has long ago left the White House and now finally Netanyahu has a Republican in the Oval Office. A U.S. president who visited just last week and didn’t once mention a Palestinian state. All the political rivals who in 1997 were waiting his imminent downfall have long ago retired from politics. True, Netanyahu once again has corruption charges looming over him, but he is confident that once again the attorney general will hesitate before indicting a sitting prime minister. Meanwhile this weekend he was back ahead again in the latest polls, with a healthy margin over his latest challenger, Yair Lapid and a stable majority for his right-wing-religious coalition. Netanyahu is back at the bedrock of his existence.

Palestinians throw stones at Israeli soldiers in Bethlehem, West Bank, 1996.
Alon Ron