Rift grows as Bibi shuns the military

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Distrust between the Israeli armed forces and Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu has reached a new peak as officers complain that their advice on relations with the Palestinians is ignored whenever it conflicts with the political platform of the Prime Minister.

Revelations about the anger in the defence establishment, including the Shin Bet security service, comes in an interview with Professor Ze'Ev Ma'oz, of a Tel Aviv University think-tank, in the daily Haaretz which coolly discusses the prospects for a military putsch. He says a coup by the army "in order to change the policy could be attractive".

The gap between Mr Netanyahu and the armed forces has deepened since his decision to open the tunnel under the old city of Jerusalem which led to violence in which 15 Israelis and 60 Palestinians died. "I know the defence establishment sent messages to the Prime Minister that an intifada [Palestinian uprising] is brewing here and Arafat will not be able to control it," said Professor Ma'oz of the Centre for Strategic Studies.

Mr Netanyahu and the Israeli right has always seen the army high command and the heads of the intelligence agencies as part of the Labour establishment. But Mr Netanyahu is accused of ignoring the Shin Bet whenever its assessments differ from his own preconceptions. In particular the Prime Minister apparently continued to believe that Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, has covertly aided groups carrying out suicide-bomb attacks although his intelligence reports said the opposite.

"The system did not supply him with reports that suited his [Mr Netanyahu's] expectations," said the professor. "That is why he decided to focus, during critical decision-making periods, on the people closest to him in his office, whose security experience is rather slim." As a result, the Prime Minister believed he could delay as long as he wanted on the partial withdrawal of Israeli forces from Hebron without pressure building up among the Palestinians.

He is also accused of downplaying intelligence assessments about the possibility of war with Syria.

The defence establishment appears appalled that Mr Netanyahu believes his own campaign rhetoric to the effect that the previous government was too soft, and raised the expectations of Palestinians and Arabs alike. His own argument has always been that if few concessions were made and Israel's military superiority was emphasised, the Arabs would be willing to come to an agreement. This has been contradicted by events of the past few months.

The talk of a coup in Israel is probably an attempt by Professor Ma'oz and the officers to dramatise their discontent with Mr Netanyahu. The military establishment also feels it must fight off marginalisation; Mr Netanyahu removed senior officers from negotiations with the Palestinians.

Three former generals in the cabinet - Ariel Sharon, Rafael Eitan and Yitzhak Mordechai - are exempted from criticism in what is is evidently an attempt to isolate the Prime Minister from his military colleagues.