Netanyahu loses the confidence of his security chiefs


A FEW weeks ago, when a leading Israeli academic, Prof Ze'ev Maoz, warned of a complete breakdown of trust between the Prime Minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, and the heads of the Israeli army and intelligence services, he was ridiculed by government officials. His suggestion that the security chiefs' frustration over the danger of Mr Netanyahu's policies could ultimately lead to a military coup was dismissed contemptuously.

But nobody is ridiculing that kind of analysis now. A quite astonishing bout of mud-slinging between Mr Netanyahu and one of those security chiefs, the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency head, Mr Ami Ayalon, has laid that complete collapse of confidence bare for all to see.

Israeli commentators are describing the very public row between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Ayalon as being virtually unprecedented in Israeli history. And while it has not yet produced any resignations, Mr Ayalon reportedly came close to quitting his job this week.

The army chief-of-staff Gen Amnon Shahak, has been reported to be weighing resignation for several months, and aides of Mr Netanyahu have been quoted as saying that, ideally, the Prime Minister would like to be rid of Mr Ayalon, Gen Shahak, and the head of the Mossad external intelligence agency, Mr Danny Yatom, as well.

The spectacular bust-up relates to Mr Netanyahu's sorry decision in late September to open a new entrance in an archaeological tunnel that runs alongside the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City.

The move triggered fighting between Israeli troops and Palestinian policemen in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem that left more than 70 people dead, destroyed relations between Israel arid the Palestinians, brought a wave of international opprobrium, and forced Mr Netanyahu to cut short a goodwill visit in Europe.

During a particularly gruelling TV interview last Sunday, Mr Netanyahu lost his cool for a moment and, forgetting Harry S. Truman's dictum about where the buck stops, accused his own security chiefs of having misled him about the likely impact of opening the tunnel. "They urged me to do it," he moaned. And when the interviewer raised a sceptical eyebrow, he insisted that the minutes of the relevant meetings would bear him out.

Quite apart from representing a most un-prime-ministerial attempt to evade blame for a poor and damaging decision, Mr Netanyahu's assertion appeared to directly contradict Mr Ayalon's previous account of events, in which he said he had recommended opening the tunnel only as part of a package deal; whereby the Palestinians were mollified with accelerated talks on the withdrawal from Hebron, and a sanction to open a new mosque on Temple Mount.

With the Prime Minister and his Shin Bet chief so publicly at odds, a resignation or sacking seemed unavoidable. Instead, on Monday night, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Ayalon got together and drafted a statement sufficiently complex as to facilitate interpretations convenient to both sides.

Mr Ayalon insisted yesterday that he had never contemplated quitting. But the Hebrew media were full of quotes from anonymous security officials insisting-he had come very close to stepping down, and had opted to stay on only because he feared the impact of his resignation on the agency, which is still trying to rehabilitate itself after failing to prevent the assassination of the late prime minister, Mr Yitzhak Rabin, last year.

Yesterday's newspapers also contained a slew of new snide allegations about the Prime Minister's leadership abilities, including the damning charge levelled by one unnamed "senior figure in the defence establishment" that, "if there is a policy [for peacemaking], I don't know what it is. If there is a decision-making process, I'm not aware of it. Because the government has no clear policy, war is likely to break out. Unnecessary war."

The dispute has broken out now because the security chiefs have added their voices to that of President Clinton in warning Mr Netanyahu of the potentially explosive consequences of his settlement expansion policies.