PM: I Will Personally Intervene in Appointment of Next IDF Chief

The political establishment is bracing for a new clash between the prime and defense ministers, this time over the appointment of a new Israel Defense Forces chief of staff.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz's preferred replacement for Dan Halutz, who resigned on Wednesday, is Defense Ministry Director General Gabi Ashkenazi. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's preferences are less clear, but he is thought to favor Deputy Chief of Staff Moshe Kaplinsky.

Tensions between the two ministers were already visible last night, after Olmert's office announced that the prime minister intended to lead the process of choosing a new chief of staff.

Olmert wants to finalize the choice and bring it to the cabinet for approval within 10 days. Peretz also wants the decision made quickly, and therefore met yesterday with all three leading candidates: Ashkenazi, Kaplinsky and Commander of the Ground Forces Benny Gantz. The latter is considered a relative long shot.

Legally, only the defense minister is authorized to propose a candidate to the cabinet. However, Olmert announced yesterday that he intends to play an active role in the process, and he has spoken with several senior officials over the last month to get their opinions on the various candidates to succeed Halutz. Given the already poor relationship between the two men, this could set the stage for another blowup.

Another possibility is that Olmert might take advantage of Halutz's resignation to fire Peretz - something that some of his advisers have been urging him to do. In that case, Olmert might replace Peretz with former prime minister Ehud Barak, who is currently running against Peretz for the Labor Party leadership.

Peretz announced yesterday that he has no intention of following Halutz's example and resigning voluntarily; rather, he said at an army graduation ceremony last night, he intends to remain on the job "and invest what is needed in order to implement the conclusions and lessons" of the various inquiries into the war.

According to Olmert's associates, the prime minister plans to consult with several other people about Halutz's replacement, including former defense ministers Shaul Mofaz, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Moshe Arens; former premiers Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres; former IDF chiefs of staff and reservist generals; Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni; and Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Tzachi Hanegbi. However, he will give special weight to the views of Barak and MK Ami Ayalon, who are the two leading contenders in the Labor leadership race and the most likely replacements for Peretz as defense minister. Both men are former senior defense officials.

Olmert said yesterday that he also plans to request an opinion from the Winograd Committee, which is investigating the war, so that the cabinet will not appoint someone whom the committee's probe has already revealed to be unsuitable. "We wouldn't want to appoint a chief of staff who will be receiving a warning letter from the committee a month later," explained an Olmert associate. However, it seems doubtful that the committee will accede to Olmert's request.

Several members of the IDF General Staff expressed support for Ashkenazi's candidacy yesterday, saying that the IDF needs an "outsider" to rehabilitate it after last summer's war in Lebanon. Ashkenazi left the IDF almost two years ago, and was therefore not directly implicated in the war's failures.

Halutz announced yesterday that he will remain on the job for another few weeks, in order to ensure an orderly transition for his successor.