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A slender, pleasant, 48-year-old kibbutznik, with light-colored eyes - newly retired from the Mossad, and totally unknown to the public and even to many senior officers in other security agencies - appears to be leading a pack of four contenders to become the next head of the Mossad.

The contender, born and raised at Kibbutz Bet Alfa, left the Mossad a year ago at the end of a successful term as head of an operational unit. His identity should be made public, but for a variety of controversial security reasons, it remains temporarily secret. The current Mossad head, Ephraim Halevy, moves out to head the National Security Council on October 1.

A Mossad chief's appointment requires the approval of a committee headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Gavriel Bach, and including Shmuel Hollander, head of the Civil Service Commission, and Maj. Gen. (res.) Shmuel Arad. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has yet to ask the committee to approve the appointment - for which the candidate has to fill out a form and be interviewed. Neither has Sharon discussed the candidates with Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

The Mossad comes under the Prime Minister's Office and the appointment of a Mossad chief, unlike a chief of staff, does not require the defense minister's approval. Nonetheless, Ben-Eliezer's office expects the defense minister to be briefed by Sharon before the appointment is declared a fait accompli.

As in the spring race for the chief of staff's job after Shaul Mofaz, when Ben-Eliezer finally settled on Moshe Ya'alon over three other candidates, the final stage of the race to become head of the Mossad has come down to a "final four" - like the playoffs in a sports league. The race is still open but in parallel semi-final playoffs, one between two reserve generals and the other between two veteran Mossad staffers, the advantage is now to the Mossad insiders and the generals are falling behind.

Along with the "kibbutznik" - whose parents still live in Bet Alfa, although he moved to the center of the country around the time he was taken into the Mossad 25 years ago - the finalists are Maj. Gen. (res) Shlomo Yanai, Maj. Gen. (res.) Meir Dagan, and the deputy chief of the Mossad, A., whose name is classified. In articles that reported his appointment as Halevy's deputy, A., who was known as "the Orientalist," headed Tzomet, the department that runs Mossad agents. He is a close associate of Halevy, who first chose him to head the Research Department, which was upgraded to Intelligence and Collection Disbursement, and then preferred him as his deputy over another (former) associate, the head of Tevel, the Mossad department responsible for foreign relations.

Among former Mossad chiefs, A. has the support mainly of Halevy and Shabtai Shavit. Danny Yatom - whose decision to name A. to the head of Tzomet created conflict with other top Mossad officials - prefers the command and operational capabilities of the kibbutznik. When it turned out that Sharon was taking an interest in the kibbutznik, Halevy made clear he believes it is very important to pick someone from inside the Mossad, and he had no objection to the appointment of the kibbutznik.

At the kibbutznik's farewell party last year, Halevy spoke warmly of him, hinting that he could still have a glorious future ahead of him. Halevy's early backing for his deputy could backfire on A.'s candidacy. Being identified as a "Halevy man," won't necessarily be an advantage in Sharon's eyes. In Halevy's position as head of the NSC - if it appears he's controling A. - he could look like a new version of Isser Harel, the legendary head of the Mossad and chief of the security services. (The heads of the Shin Bet, Izzy Dorot and afterward Amos Manor, were subordinate to Harel).

A. is considered a professional in his field. Among other things, he was one of those who exposed the intelligence fraud by field controller Yehuda Gil (though others in the agency dispute how important he was for discovering the fraud). He is well-liked by the former deputy chief, Aliza Magen, Shavit, and Halevy, but did not impress officials from outside the Mossad with whom he worked in recent years. His talent as a field officer in foreign places was to see and not be seen, a talent that may have been to his detriment when he represented the Mossad in discussions with the top levels of the defense establishment. One participant in those talks described him as "listening but not speaking" and it is doubtful if he would impress heads of state and foreign intelligence services.

The kibbutznik's associates say he has the clear advantage in this area. He is considered a superior operations man who began his career in elite army units, including as deputy commander of the Paratroop Reconnaissance Regiment after the Yom Kippur War when Yiftah Reicher was its commander - that's the period between Mofaz and Doron Almog. Paratroop officers at the time regarded him as a "star," said one who stayed in the army and is now a general.

Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, a former commander of Sayeret Matkal, Military Intelligence, and deputy chief of staff during joint IDF-Mossad operations, responded to the news that the kibbutznik was a candidate, with one word - "Excellent!" Yatom wanted him for head of Operations, perhaps the most important unit in the spy agency, even before the botched assassination of Haled Mashal in September 1997, which forced the resignation of Yotam and the appointment of Halevy and Aniram Levine as his deputy.

The kibbutznik rehabilitated Operations - and his retirement to try his hand at private business in Europe was a cause for deep disappointment. But like many who quit the defense establishment to try their hand at business, his business didn't work out so well the first time around. He now lives in the center of the country, and in a phone call this week refused to comment on his chances of becoming head of the Mossad - or on his plans, although he did promise that if selected he will follow in Halevy's footsteps and be more open with the press.

Many other former security officials praise him, saying he's the best of the insider candidates for the job. "Halevy was great for 20 percent of the job that interested him, mostly foreign relations, but weak on the other 80 percent," one said.

The main test of the Mossad is its ability to collect information for the country's leaders and the army, especially at a time of hostilities. That kind of test almost always requires an outside appointment, meaning an army general, who is acceptable to his former colleagues as an authority able to perceive the war's needs and and its priorities. Organizational skills and political know-how also make that kind of candidate particularly appealing.

While it's sometimes best to name an insider, to signal that the pinnacle of the organization is not blocked to the Mossad rank and file, it is usually seen as best to name a general. After Isser Harel resigned in the spring of 1963, generals were appointed for the next 20 years. Only after the last of that series of generals, Yekutiel Adam, was killed during the Lebanon War even before he could take up his post as head of the spy agency, was that chain broken with the appointment of Nahum Admoni, then deputy chief. Then for the next 20 years (except for an 18-month period with Yatom as head of the agency) insiders were chosen as chief.

The two generals in the race are Meir Dagan, who is considered close to Sharon, as one of the field commanders in Gaza of the early 1970s when Sharon silenced terrorism there for a few years as the major general of the Southern Command, and Shlomo Yanai, 50, one of the most experienced combat commanders of the general staff of the 1990s, with medals going back to the 1967 Six Day War.

Yanai was major general of the Southern Command, head of planning - which made him a participant at the Wye River summit and two years later a participant at Camp David. He's a personal friend of CIA Director George Tenet and many senior officers in the Pentagon. But Yanai's career hit the ceiling that has prevented armored corps generals from advancing to the role of deputy chief of staff and from there to chief of staff. Thus when Ya'alon, with Ben-Eliezer's backing, chose Gabi Ashkenazi as deputy chief of staff, Yanai announced plans to retire from the army.

Sharon, who hears conflicting advice from his various civilian and military associates, is supposed to decide this month. His two military liaison officers, Moshe Kaplinski and Yoav Galant are Yanai's most enthusiastic supporters.

For someone who was a permanent critic of defense establishment appointments as too conservative, he is proving to be as conservative as his predecessors. If he had been prime minister 50 years ago, it is doubtful he would have dared to allow the chief of staff to appoint a problematic, enthusiastic and combat-hungry major named Ariel Sharon to be head of Unit 101.