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Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced Tuesday that Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi's term will not be extended for a fifth year. Ashkenazi will thus step down at the end of his term in February 2011.

The race is now open for the next man to take up the job. Front-runners for the moment are GOC Southern Command Yoav Gallant, deputy chief of staff Benny Gantz, GOC Northern Command Gadi Eizenkot and Maj. Gen. (res.) Moshe Kaplinsky.

On Tuesday, Barak suddenly summoned Ashkenazi for an afternoon meeting in the defense minister's office in Tel Aviv. He told Ashkenazi that the decision had the cabinet's backing.

Chiefs of staff serve for three years and usually have their terms extended for one more year. Rafael Eitan was the only chief of staff to serve for five years, at the beginning of the 1980s. The chief of staff's term was set at four years for the first time when Ashkenazi was appointed in 2007 by then-defense minister Amir Peretz.

Barak's office announced the decision in a statement Tuesday evening. According to sources in Barak's office, Ashkenazi was allowed to see it before it was released. Barak praised Ashkenazi's contribution to the building of the IDF and his operational achievements. He said he knew these efforts would continue in the coming year; Ashkenazi has 10 months left in office.

The statement also noted that Barak would begin the process of selecting Ashkenazi's successor in the coming months.

A few hours after Barak's statement, the IDF Spokesman's Office issued a clarification from Ashkenazi. "I would like to make clear that I never approached the prime minister, the defense minister or any other official with a request to continue for a fifth year," Ashkenazi said in a statement.

In recent months, trial balloons have been floated in the media about extending Ashkenazi's term. But the chief of staff has kept a careful distance from the speculation, which has also come up in conversations among political figures.

However, it seems that Ashkenazi had mixed feelings about not getting that fifth year, considering the power of his position and concerns over whether his successor will do as good a job. Ashkenazi's public standing is currently at a high; an unexpected event in a fifth year could cloud his record, as has been the case with Mossad chief Meir Dagan.

Ashkenazi and his associates declined on Tuesday to comment on Barak's decision. Still, Ashkenazi may have been insulted by the way Barak summoned him to the meeting and released the statement - a full 10 months before his term ends. Senior officers might begin regarding Ashkenazi as a lame duck, looking ahead to his successor. The appointment could come as early as this summer to allow a rotation of positions in the General Staff that Ashkenazi's successor would support.

Ashkenazi's status in the public eye, along with tensions between him and Barak over the past few months, seem to be the main reason for the defense minister's unusual step.

The tensions rose to the surface about two months ago when Barak's office accused a close Ashkenazi adviser, IDF spokesman Avi Benayahu, of leaking to Channel 1 that Barak was considering giving Ashkenazi a fifth year. Benayahu denied this, and Ashkenazi demanded an apology from Barak, which never came.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said on Tuesday that the prime minister "trusted Barak and his professional considerations and did not go into matters beyond that." Netanyahu's people said the prime minister had the greatest respect for Ashkenazi.

It seems that Barak's new bureau chief, Yoni Koren, was behind the form of Tuesday's announcement. It was not a dismissal - what prime minister Ariel Sharon and defense minister Shaul Mofaz did to Moshe Ya'alon in 2005. But the final result is not that different.

Sources in Barak's office said the issue of the fifth year was constantly in the air and needed to be clarified.

In addition to the four front-runners, GOC Central Command Avi Mizrahi has also thrown his hat into the ring.

Gallant, whose appointment as deputy chief of staff last year Ashkenazi vehemently opposed, seems to have a good chance of getting the job, as does Gantz.

Eizenkot has a personal relationship with Barak, having been his military secretary when Barak was prime minister.

Kaplinsky has been out of the army for the past two and a half years, as CEO of the Better Place electric car infrastructure company. And Barak may not want to appoint Israel's second consecutive chief of staff who was currently out of the army, to avoid the impression that he was called in to save the day.

Ashkenazi's input in the choice of his successor, considering his relationship with Barak, is likely to be minimal.

Posted by Amos Harel on April 7, 2010

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