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When top positions are fought over in Israel, we observe the re-emergence of a law of nature - or if not a universal law, at least the Law of the Nature of Israelis. When the virtues and shortcomings of the various candidates are enumerated, the champions of those who have been pilloried and the vicious critics of those who have been lauded begin to "balance the picture." So we see the blackening of the Great White Hopes and the whitewashing of the Tarred and Feathered.

The head post of Mossad - or, as it is officially known, the Institute for Intelligence and Special Tasks - is a position coveted by all those who have climbed through that agency's ranks to reach the level of divisional director or even slightly higher, and that top job is the only alternative left for senior Israel Defense Forces officers ruled out of the running to be next chief of staff. The appointment of the Mossad's chief lies in the prime minister's hands, and today there are four candidates for the post - two are high-ranking Mossad officials (currently or in the not-too-distant past) and two are major generals in business suits.

The two major generals, Shlomo Yanai and Meir Dagan, have impressive reputations, although not all the components in those reputations necessarily pertain to either of these two gentlemen. Yanai, an Armored Corps officer, is saddled with the image frequently associated with those who have served as officers with the tank corps: fastidious, well-organized, a person who attaches great importance to discipline and to everything-being-in-its-place and who is, ipso facto, not one of the unruly bastards needed for the Special Operations' insane world of dirty tricks. Dagan, who is also an Armored Corps officer (with battalion, divisional and corps command positions) has precisely the opposite image since his first days in the IDF. He's seen as a maverick whose principal prowess is demonstrated in the dark alleyways of hand-to-hand combat.

Maj. General Israel Tal, a friend of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was highly agitated late last week when he learned of these respective images. Yanai and Dagan, Tal pointed out, had proved their mettle on the battlefield, in senior command posts and on the General Staff, and had shown the correct blend of courage, responsibility and judgment. Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer - in his previous incarnations, a colonel in 1967 and a brigadier general in 1980, who was sent together with Dagan to Lebanon to help the Christians in their war with the Palestinians - last week included Yanai and Dagan in the list of generals from whom he would choose the Mossad's chief were he in Sharon's shoes.

Two other candidates for the post are two former heads of Military Intelligence in the IDF: Amos Malka and Uri Saguy.

Nonetheless, Sharon is extremely impressed by a former Mossad official, a native of Beit Alfa, who left this kibbutz a quarter of a century ago and who is no more a kibbutznik than is former prime minister Ehud Barak; however, he was forced to momentarily don that epithet at the Military Censorship's masquerade ball.

The laurel wreaths heaped upon his head in public by friends and acquaintances infuriated others with whom he is acquainted and who warned that, given his personality and background, it would be highly inadvisable - and, in any case, premature - to appoint him to this post. Among the top Mossad officials during the 1990s who are supporters of the Mossad chief's present deputy, there are those who were willing to go so far as to say that despite their view that it would be preferable to appoint an insider, an outsider like Yanai would be a better choice than the "kibbutznik."

After the Yom Kippur War and in light of the lessons drawn from the Lillehammer fiasco, in which the Mossad misidentified its victim, an officer with the IDF's elite Sayeret Matkal unit, Muki Betzer, was chosen to put a very important Mossad operations unit back on its feet. Betzer began the reconstruction process but, in the end, opted for another challenge, the creation of the elite Shaldag unit in the IDF. The "kibbutznik," an officer with the Paratroop Brigade's ranger unit under the command of former chief of staff Shaul Mofaz and of Yiftah Reicher, was recruited to fill the vacuum created by Betzer's departure and made admirable progress along the operational track and bade farewell to the Mossad as a divisional chief. His critics are saying that a secret service needs a James Bond but that it must be headed by a George Smiley or a general, because the chief of an espionage agency must be street-smart, must have experience in managing large organizations and must have earned flight hours facing off with members of the top brass.

A month-and-a-half before the scheduled departure of Efraim Halevy, when the Mossad must be highly attentive to what is happening among the Palestinians and in Iraq, Sharon has to make a quick decision. He is aware of the respective qualifications of the candidates for the post of Mossad chief. And prolonging the competition will only hurt the Mossad, just as the delay in Ben-Eliezer's announcement of Moshe Yaalon's appointment as chief of staff did damage to the IDF.