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The next chief of staff is to be chosen by Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer next week, and Major General Moshe Ya'alon, the IDF's deputy chief of staff, is the most likely candidate for the position, according to government and defense sources.

The sources said Ben-Eliezer plans to submit next week his preferred candidate to the Bach Committee, which vets senior public-sector appointments to ensure candidates are qualified and not just political cronies. The panel is expected to quickly approve the choice, after which it will go to the cabinet for final approval. Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz leaves office on July 9.

Ben-Eliezer has kept the identity of his preferred candidate a closely guarded secret. However, the sources are under the impression that Ya'alon will get the nod over the three other candidates - Major Generals Dan Halutz, Uzi Dayan and Amos Malka.

The appointment also requires Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's approval. Sharon had originally pushed for Halutz, the head of the Israel Air Force. Last week, however, he conceded, saying this is not the right time to be shaking up the air force command structure.

But desire to avoid a coalition crisis might also have been a factor in Sharon's decision: Ben-Eliezer has been insisting recently that the appointment of the next chief of staff is the defense minister's prerogative, and that he will not permit the prime minister to veto his preferred candidate.