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Defense Minister Ehud Barak yesterday slammed outgoing Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, saying there was a "dark cloud" over his ethical and professional performance.

Barak was referring to the state comptroller's inquiry into a document allegedly forged by former army officer Boaz Harpaz with the goal of discrediting Yoav Galant's candidacy to replace Ashkenazi.

Ashkenazi did not respond directly to Barak's statements but said the army was undergoing "sad times."

On Tuesday, Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Galant would not be appointed the next chief of staff, the first time in Israel's history that a candidate nominated for the position has been forced to withdraw. The announcement was followed by the news that Ashkenazi's term, which ends on February 14, would not be extended.

In an interview aired on three television channels yesterday, Barak defended his controversial decision to appoint an acting chief of staff instead of extending Ashkenazi's term, saying it was necessary to maintain the military's honor. "The decision not to extend Ashkenazi's term was not easy to make, but it was made in order to protect the honor of the institution of the chief of staff," he said.

"It [the decision] involves ethical, normative and even professional issues of the first importance," he added, apparently hinting at the Harpaz affair.

"I am confident that I am acting correctly by not extending his term," Barak continued. "There is a dark cloud hovering over the IDF chief of staff's office that demands scrutiny to make sure we are working in an ethical and normative environment."

Barak said various steps had been taken in the past year and a half to foil Galant's appointment. Asked if Ashkenazi was behind those steps, Barak said, "I cannot say. Those things will be made clear."

He said if everything proceeds as planned, "we won't need 60 days or even 30 days until the new chief of staff is chosen and appointed."

Barak praised Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, the designated temporary replacement, and said he was worthy of filling in until the next chief of staff is appointed.

Earlier, in a parting speech to the IDF disabled veterans association, Ashkenazi commented indirectly on the decision to retract Galant's appointment and appoint Naveh as acting chief of staff.

"These are sad times, but the army is stronger than any of the developments going on around it," he said. "I leave behind me an army that is professional, value-laden, normative and focused on its mission."

Military sources said Barak's attack on the chief of staff was unfounded and damaging to the army.

Netanyahu agreed with Barak's claim that due to the rift in their relations, the defense minister could no longer work with Ashkenazi. But other ministers have blasted the decision to appoint a temporary chief of staff and demanded that Ashkenazi's term be extended.

Barak and Netanyahu are expected to start the first round of interviews for a new chief of staff soon. In addition to Naveh, they will consider majors general Benny Gantz and Gadi Eizenkot, as well as two reserve majors general, Moshe Kaplinsky and Shlomo Yanai.