Sunday at 5:30 P.M., Maj. Gen. Yoav Gallant left Defense Minister Ehud Barak's bureau and walked down the hall to the chief of staff's offices. Those who passed him in the corridors of the 14th floor of the Kirya office tower in Tel Aviv thought they detected the shadow of a smile on his face, part satisfied and part determined.

Barak had sought to persuade him that the choice of the Israel Defense Forces' 20th chief of staff, the person to succeed Gabi Ashkenazi, was not a foregone conclusion. Gallant did the math and agreed to stay on in his present post.

His immediate retirement would have echoed for a few seconds, like the slamming of a door, after which all that would remain of the angry general would be a picture on the wall at the entrance to the Southern Command.

Barak managed to get two points to Gallant: Only toward the end of Ashkenazi's term, when he is free of obligation to the latter, would he decide which of the three generals - Gallant, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eizenkot - to recommend to the cabinet as the next chief of staff.

After 32 years in uniform, Gallant, with the appointment as chief of staff within reach, is better off investing just over another year rather than torturing himself for decades over the lottery ticket he let slip through his fingers before he found out whether it was a winner.

In 1987, Barak had to decide whether to stay on under chief of staff Dan Shomron without assurances that he would be appointed to succeed Shomron. He sought advice from disappointed candidates for the office - Ezer Weizman and Ariel Sharon.

No political post, no matter how high, could compensate for the post they had so desired in the IDF. Yigal Alon, Israel Tal, Matan Vilnai, and Uzi Dayan felt the same burning, unrequited desire.

Tal used to say that the three best candidates for the job reached the finish line, from whom the least qualified was chosen. It is hard to say what mixture makes the best candidate, but "controversial" does not necessary equal "bad," even if the candidate challenges a minister or chief of staff.

GOC Northern Command Avigdor Ben-Gal and GOC Southern Command Dan Shomron were leading candidates under chief of staff Rafael Eitan. Eitan wanted Ben-Gal, and Sharon wanted Shomron. They compromised on GOC Central Command Moshe Levy.

Gantz will be more suitable for the chief's job when Ashkenazi leaves, after over a year as deputy chief of staff under his belt and in his fifth post in his eight years as a general, than Levy was in 1983, having never commanded a unit, brigade or division in the regular army, or Shaul Mofaz was 20 years later. Only one other officer, Haim Laskov, filled five posts as a general, and was appointed chief of staff over the opposition of his predecessor, Moshe Dayan.

Gantz's service as deputy chief of staff will put him in good standing, even though it may not ensure him the victory. The road is shorter from within the chief of staff's headquarters in Tel Aviv than from Gallant's GOC Southern Command headquarters in Be'er Sheva, or from the Northern Command headquarters in Safed for Eizenkot, a front-runner who nonetheless eschews the struggle in competing for the post.

The competition among the generals highlights their past positions instead of focusing on how each one would shape the IDF of the future. The only exceptions to that axiom were defense minister Moshe Arens, who appointed Barak, and prime minister Sharon, who picked Dan Halutz.

Barak has convinced Gallant, who once headed operations in the navy's Shayetet 13 commando unit, to dive deep for a year. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is a stranger to the IDF general staff, hardly knows Gabi from Gadi, and did not interfere in the appointments.