Netanyahu has pushed too hard, Israelis say Many blame premier's hard-line stance for outbreak of violence

September 30, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- A hand-painted banner summed up Paula Miodownik's opinion of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: "You Inherited the Peace Process and You Brought War."

The streets of Palestinian cities resembled a battlefield last week. Palestinian protesters, upset over the opening of an archaeological tunnel near holy Islamic sites in Jerusalem, clashed with Israeli soldiers. Running gunbattles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian police ensued. By the weekend, at least 68 were dead in the worst violence in the Palestinian territories since the signing of the peace accords in Oslo, Norway, in 1993.

Miodownik, a theater designer, arrived at a peace demonstration yesterday with the sole objective of sending a message to Israeli's hard-line prime minister, who many blame for the violence. Get the peace process back on track, she said.

"He talks about peace and what he does in actual fact he's contravening the Oslo agreements," Miodownik said.

The outbreak of violence capped Netanyahu's first 100 days in office. Palestinians, their leaders, even Israel's top intelligence officers, attribute the trouble to Netanyahu's policies, saying his approach has hampered the peace process.

Netanyahu has shown no signs of backing off, creating more worry about the prospects for peace. Even as 20,000 people marched for peace Saturday in Tel Aviv, a defiant Netanyahu vowed before an audience of Christian supporters never to close the disputed archaeological tunnel that runs near the Dome of the Rock, Islam's third-holiest shrine.

While dissent has mounted at home and abroad, Netanyahu knows that not all Israelis are second-guessing him.

Avi Zeira, a businessman who lives in the north of the country, believes the prime minister has done Israelis a favor.

"He just exposed the true face of the Palestinians," said Zeira, who lives in the Golan Heights, a mountainous area captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that the Syrians want returned in exchange for peace.

"If every time they do not like our policy they will start bloodshed, then what is the meaning of this peace process? Even after we shall finish the process, even after we give them the West Bank, even after we, God forbid, give them Jerusalem, there will always remain the seeds for the next conflict."

"The process of decision-making for the opening of the Hasemonean tunnel was short, incomplete and in the opinion of many, faulty," wrote Ze'ev Shiff, the military correspondent for the independent, Hebrew-language daily Haaretz. "The astounding thing is that when the decision was made, it was well known in the prime minister's office that there was a possibility that it would result in violence and injuries."

Netanyahu accused Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian authority, of inciting his people to bring political pressure on the government through violence. The prime minister bellowed that he would not succumb to such tactics; at the same time, he repeated his commitment to peace.

The Jerusalem Post, the country's conservative, English-language daily, supported his stance. But an editorial in yesterday's editions of the newspaper questioned Netanyahu's ability to work under those parameters.

"The signs after Netanyahu's first 100 days in office, it must be said, are not encouraging. Many of his decisions and statements during his first three months in office have proven flawed," the paper wrote. "The premier seems to have a tendency to set himself deadlines and goals that are either unattainable or simply self-defeating."

Miodownik, the theater designer from Jaffa, believes the prime minister has set out to sabotage the peace process, and that the tunnel controversy is an example. Netanyahu made a decision that his advisers told him might lead to violence and tried to place the onus on the Palestinians, she said.

"He's manipulated the situation to where the Arabs contravene the situation," said Miodownik, as she waited for the start of a peace rally at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl Cemetery. "If it hadn't been the tunnel, it would have been the next thing."

Asi Edri, a 24-year-old teacher, sat with his girlfriend in a shopping plaza in Rishon LeZiyyon, a Tel Aviv suburb. He wished that the prime minister had been tougher with the Palestinians; Israeli soldiers should not be restrained in life-threatening situations, he said.

"It shouldn't matter if that terrorist, that Arab, comes to them unarmed," said Edri, a Jew who voted for Netanyahu. "Even if he comes empty-handed, maybe he hides something."

Zeira also cast his ballot for the Likud leader. But he usually voted for the Labor Party. He supports the peace process. He believes Palestinians should have some kind of state or entity to call their own. But he says that people have to be realistic about peace.

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