. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Netanyahu-Army Rift Reflects Israeli Unease

TEL AVIV -- When Benjamin Netanyahu visited an army base in central Israel for a memorial ceremony last week, hundreds of soldiers had to be disarmed for fear that one might try to attack the prime minister.

Although there is tighter security everywhere in Israel since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin a year ago, the event deepened a sense that all is not well between the army and Netanyahu's new hardline government.

Earlier this week, several dozen officers and combat soldiers wrote Netanyahu, warning they would have trouble fighting to defend his policies. The Maariv daily quoted the letter as saying Netanyahu was making "every effort to drag us into war."

The top army brass is reportedly irked that the Netanyahu government has kept them away from policymaking -- after years of working closely with Yitzhak Rabin and other leaders who themselves hailed from the security establishment.

One expert caused an uproar Wednesday by claiming that the once unthinkable prospect of a military coup has become a slight possibility.

Zeev Maoz, head of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, said a coup "is a danger that the political and military leadership will have to take into account for the first time."

The assessment was swiftly dismissed by the armed forces chief of staff, Lieutenant General Amnon Shahak.

But there is obvious tension between the army and government since the May election victory of Netanyahu, who as opposition leader fought the Israel-PLO accords and charged that the military was too involved in their negotiation.

One of Netanyahu's first acts was to announce the creation of a national security council in the prime minister's office. The move caused suspicion in the military that Netanyahu was trying to cut them out of the policymaking, and was never implemented.

Maoz said Netanyahu has kept the generals from his inner circle because he feels most are beholden to his predecessors' peace policies and therefore cannot be trusted.

Sometimes Netanyahu has ignored their advice -- most recently in opening an archaeological tunnel near Jerusalem's Muslim holy sites last month that sparked rioting in which 79 people died.

If Israel gets entangled in a major crisis as a result of Netanyahu's policies, military commanders feeling shut out by the prime minister might take desperate steps, Maoz warned.

The problem may be connected to the deep divisions in Israeli society. Mark Heller, a Jaffee Center researcher, noted the security elite are mostly well-educated, secular and of European descent -- the opposite of Netanyahu voters, who tend to be more religious, less educated and Sephardi, with roots in the Mideast.

"The officers understand that the true security needs of the country require some measure of accommodation with the neighbors," Heller said, adding that while a military coup still seems remote, "you can't rule anything out."

Gerald Steinberg, who heads the more conservative BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, accused Maoz of seeking publicity and said the coup warning was "nonsense."

And Rehavam Zeevi, a nationalist lawmaker, argued that "even if theoretically all the officers would unite" to launch a coup, "the army would not follow such orders because the army reflects the people and the people are from all the parties."

In any case, the army leadership has an ambivalent history with Israel's nationalists.

During the Palestinian uprising against Israel in the late 1980s, military intelligence split with the rightist government by claiming a solution had to be political, not military, and that the then-banned PLO was the Palestinians' representative.

Military intelligence also assessed that Israel could afford to return the strategic Golan Heights to Syria for peace -- a trade Netanyahu opposes. This week an intelligence report predicted Syria would attack if it concluded chances for a deal with Netanyahu were nil.

Rabin, who was a former army chief, seemed to trust the army brass more than his own Cabinet ministers, who were often kept in the dark as army officers such as Shahak led talks with the PLO.

In a television interview this week, Shahak made it clear he was having trouble making the adjustment.

Shahak said he missed Rabin "in many ways. ... He left behind a large hole. I think that if I could have consulted with him during the past year, I would have picked up the phone more than once. ... I would tell him what's happening and ask him what he thinks."

The jittery mood that has overtaken the country and the army was evident at a ceremony for fallen soldiers of the Armored Corps last Thursday at a base in Latrun in central Israel.

When the soldiers arrived, they were asked by the Shin Bet security service -- which is in charge of protecting the prime minister -- to leave their rifles on their buses. Israel radio reports said the measure, confirmed by the army Wednesday, was unprecedented.

Some of the soldiers later complained to opposition legislator Hagai Merom, who condemned the order as "an act showing distrust of the defense forces, their soldiers and their officers."