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Netanyahu, security aides continue to spar over tunnel

JERUSALEM, Dec. 17 (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tense relations with some of his top security advisers were again thrown into the spotlight this week. Those tensions emerged after the Netanyahu government decided in September to open a new entrance to an archaeological tunnel near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Renewed discussion of that decision came against the backdrop of reports that senior security aides had warned Netanyahu last week that expanding Jewish settlements could spark violence among Palestinians. Calls for settlement expansion came after terrorists killed two Israelis in a drive-by shooting in the West Bank. But, in a compromise move, the Netanyahu government approved a series of financial benefits for Jewish settlers. In the wake of the tunnel entrance opening, Palestinian rioting erupted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, leaving 15 Israelis and 60 Palestinians dead in three days of violence. Defense officials said at the time that they had not been informed of the decision to open the tunnel and only learned about it a short time before it happened. But Netanyahu gave a different take on the matter this week. In an interview with Channel Two television, he said he had received a number of assessments from security officials that “not only told me that there would be no reaction, but actually pressed for the opening of the tunnel.” Netanyahu said there were written protocols of the meetings that backed up his statements. The remarks prompted denials this week from security officials and a storm in the opposition. At a session Monday of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Labor Knesset member Haim Ramon presented his own set of protocols, in which the head of the Shin Bet domestic security service, Ami Ayalon, warned of possible riots if the tunnel were opened. For his part, Ayalon was quoted Monday evening as saying that he had told the prime minister that opening the second entrance to the tunnel was possible without prompting violent reaction. But, Ayalon added, he had also said the opening of the entrance needed to be accompanied by an accelerated pace in the Israeli- Palestinian negotiations and by the opening of a large mosque located under the Temple Mount that is known as Solomon’s Stables. Ayalon said he never took part in discussions regarding the timing of the entrance’s opening. Israeli officials Tuesday downplayed reports of strained relations between Netanyahu and Ayalon, denying reports that the Shin Bet head had considered resigning this week. The Israeli media reported Tuesday that Ayalon had considered resigning over his poor relations with the prime minister — but that he decided not to in order to avoid shaking up the Shin Bet. Since Netanyahu’s election in May, commentators have observed that relations between the prime minister and the defense establishment have been characterized by mistrust and friction. They attributed this in part to Netanyahu’s suspicion that the top security echelon, which had been closely involved in the peace negotiations with the Palestinians, was biased toward the previous Labor government’s views. Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai on Tuesday stressed that the state of relations between the prime minister and the defense establishment were in working order. Speaking during a tour of the Gaza Strip, he acknowledged that differences of opinion had surfaced during discussions, but he said this was part of the process of presenting professional assessments. A scheduled discussion in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee about the decision-making process regarding the new tunnel entrance was canceled Tuesday at the request of Labor Knesset member Ori Orr. Orr, a former deputy defense minister, said such a debate was futile.