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Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz suffered a stunning defeat yesterday. He wanted to name a general in active service to the Research, Development and Infrastructure Organization (RDIO) department, but Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer overruled him.

On the face of it, Ben-Eliezer chose sides with Amos Yaron, the defense ministry director-general. Practically, Mofaz wasn't blocked by Yaron - whose relations with the defense minister are sometimes tense and sometimes calm, but are kept behind the scenes - but by Ben-Eliezer.

Last Thursday, before leaving for New York, Ben-Eliezer decided to name Shmuel Keren, CEO of Ta'as and former head of R&D in RDIO - which is the critical junction between security, technology, and industry - as head of the department that answers to the chief of staff and the director general of the defense ministry.

As far as Ben-Eliezer was concerned, it was the most reasonable choice of all, so reasonable that it's not clear why he waited months to make it. During these months, Keren didn't change at all, remaining a reserve brigadier general, Yaron's candidate and the candidate of the minister's assistant, Brig. Gen. Yossi Beinhorn - who also happens to be Keren's brother. The person who changed, nearly a year late, is not the appointee, but the person who makes the appointments.

Over the past year, Ben-Eliezer has proven to be someone who finds it difficult to make decisions, preferring the status quo or, at most, agreement with his subordinates. So far, he hasn't made his mark in the defense establishment with a single important decision, and there's no sign that anything would be any different if he wasn't there.

After giving Mofaz a fourth year, Ben-Eliezer signed off on a list of promotions proposed by Mofaz, practically without any changes. Among others, he accepted Mofaz's strange promotion of Major General Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash to the head of Military Intelligence, and the equally strange decision to move Major General Benny Gantz out of the West Bank only a few months before he was appointed to head of the forces there.

As a politician, his power is his ability to make appointments, but he was amazingly generous to Mofaz, going so far as forgoing his right to name a civilian or a former officer to the position of government coordinator in the territories, a job Ben-Eliezer held, as a reserve brigadier, under then-defense minister Moshe Arens.

But during that round of appointments last summer, picking a new chief of RDIO became complicated. Major General Dr. Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, the first of the career officers to hold the job, was considered particularly successful, and Ben-Eliezer agreed to Mofaz's request that his replacement would also be a serving general.

Mofaz's first nominee was Brigadier General Pinhas Barel (Bucharis), the outgoing commander of the main intelligence gathering unit in Military Intelligence, 8200. But events on the night of the appointments show that no matter how many promises are made, until the ranks are pinned and the promotion given, nothing is certain.

After winning Yaron's agreement for Bucharis' appointment, Mofaz withdrew the appointment, deciding instead on the air force chief of staff, Brigadier Amos Yadlin. Ben-Eliezer offered no objections - but Yaron rebelled, regarding the appointment as a Mofaz maneuver against him. Bucharis has been seen since, red-eyed on the tranquil paths of the defense ministry. Yadlin was compensated with a major general's rank and the decision to name him head of the National Security Staff College. Air Force Commander Major General Dan Halutz recently denied he would hesitate before recommending Yadlin as his heir if Halutz wins the race for chief of staff. According to Halutz, Yadlin is qualified to command the air force, under chief of staff Halutz.

After the Bucharis-Yadlin night, Yaron settled on Keren as the candidate. He didn't retreat, just as Mofaz didn't retreat from his insistence on an available senior general (former planning department head Shlomo Yanai), or to bring a reserve general back into active duty (former air force commander Eitan Ben-Eliahu), or even a reserve brigadier, who would get the major general's rank.

Ben-Eliezer dithered, even after Ben-Yisrael announced that he would turn down any further extension to his job. He left the RDIO on January 1, and after two weeks of hesitation, an acting chief was named - Brigadier General Shmuel Yachin.

Ben-Eliezer continued hesitating, saying he had three candidates for the job and he wanted to interview them. Ben-Yisrael started working with Yachin to prepare him for the job.

But yesterday, with Ben-Eliezer, Yaron, and Yachin overseas, the announcement about Keren's appointment was published.

The appointment goes into effect "in the coming months," said the announcement. Ben-Yisrael will have to stop working with Yachin, who leaves R&D in the summer, and start all over again with Keren.

Ben-Eliezer's behavior in the appointment was so clumsy that the only explanation for it, they were saying last night in the defense ministry and general staff, are his tense relations with Mofaz. For months, Ben-Eliezer avoided using his authority to impose a decision on the chief of staff, but he finally decided to do something the day after a very vocal argument with Mofaz in the Prime Minister's Office, a continuation of a statement by Ben-Eliezer when, angry about Mofaz's reservations about a withdrawal from Abu Sneina, he said he would fire the chief of staff.

But Ben-Eliezer was too weak to fire Mofaz. Instead, he ignores Mofaz's recommended appointments. That's a clear sign that Ben-Eliezer is close to a decision on his candidate for chief of staff. Only a month ago he was saying he'd make the announcement on the eve of Passover. Then, after the Karine A weapons ship was captured, he announced the decision could come sooner.

The tension remains, but Ben-Eliezer is about to stop caring about the current chief of staff's serenity, five months before Mofaz finally leaves the army.