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Defense Minister Ehud Barak seems to have bucked media criticism of his decision not to extend Gabi Ashkenazi's term, which is a way of attaining his objective of making way for the next chief of staff.

In the coming months, Barak, who announced Tuesday that Ashkenazi will be replaced in February 2011 after four years in office, as planned, will hold a series of meetings with the generals who are candidates for the post: Yoav Gallant, Benny Gantz, Gadi Eizenkot, and perhaps also Maj. Gen. (res.) Moshe Kaplinsky and Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrahi. A final decision is expected at the beginning of the summer.

Ashkenazi, who did not have high hopes his term would be extended, was very insulted by the roughshod way Barak has been treating him over the past few days. However, he does not plan to fight a minister who does not want him. In the statement of clarification he issued Wednesday, Ashkenazi recommended "focusing on the main issues, complex security problems and challenges."

It remains to be seen how Ashkenazi and Barak work together in the remaining months of Ashkenazi's term.

Meanwhile, the official representatives of the government all seem to be reading from the same page: Ashkenazi is an excellent chief of staff, but the time has come to replace him.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been informed ahead of time of Barak's intention, said Wednesday at a press briefing marking his first year in office: "I value and respect the chief of staff. In fact, no decision was made. This is the implementation of a cabinet resolution that limited the term of the chief of staff to four years... Every organization needs to renew its chain of command even when it is headed by quality people."

The cabinet decision was made in February 2007, under Ehud Olmert, when the cabinet confirmed Ashkenazi's appointment for four years. It was a first, since other chiefs of staff have been appointed for three years with an almost automatic extension to four years. The cabinet resolution stated that the ministers could extend the appointment for a fifth year "under emergency circumstances only."

Speaking at a ceremony in memory of Bedouin Israel Defense Forces soldiers in the Galilee, Barak said he had great esteem for Ashkenazi, whom he called "one of the best chiefs of staff the IDF has ever had," and lauded his contribution to the IDF in recent years.

However, Barak added: "The replacement of the chief of staff every four years is necessary. Under the circumstances, there was a need to do so."

Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said in a visit to a public shelter in Tel Aviv that Ashkenazi has been "an excellent chief of staff, but Barak is also an excellent defense minister and can be depended on. A chief of staff is replaced after four years."

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, who was involved in the wording of the cabinet resolution, thought it would avoid a repeat of the clash between then-defense minister Shaul Mofaz and then-chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon over Mofaz's decision not to prolong Ya'alon's term. Mofaz's successor, Amir Peretz, who wavered over whether to seek a three- or four-year term for chief of staff, discussed the matter with Ashkenazi over the phone and decided on four years.

When it came time for Barak to discuss the end of Ashkenazi's term with him, his decision to release a statement to the press seems to have surprised the chief of staff. Ashkenazi was also apparently surprised that Barak's advisers had been party to the decision before he was informed of it. But when Ashkenazi realized Barak was determined to release the statement, he apparently did not argue over the wording.

Still, military sources said Wednesday that Ashkenazi's office sent a fax to Barak's office Tuesday night to protest the release of the statement. Barak's office said it was not aware of such a fax.

Wednesday this newspaper observed that it will be hard to see how Barak can let go a valued chief of staff while maintaining his position that the Iranian threat justifies keeping Netanyahu in office.

But a senior defense official who has served with both Barak and Ashkenazi for years observed Wednesday that if the chief of staff leaves, Barak will remain the only "responsible adult" - and who said there's room for two such men at the top of the Kirya military headquarters?

Barak Ravid and Jack Khoury contributed reporting for this piece.

Posted by Amos Harel on April 8, 2010

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