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Moshe Ya'alon became the IDF's 17th chief of staff in the summer of 2002 amid great expectations. He was honest, smart, sober and impressive as the general of the Central Command and was a refreshing change after four years of Shaul Mofaz. A year and a half after taking up the job, the prediction of Uzi Dayan, his rival for the post and his predecessor as deputy chief of staff, has come true: "The right man in the right job at the wrong time."

In another time, under different circumstances, Ya'alon might have overcome his weaknesses and translated his qualities into achievements. But now, stuck between a domineering defense minister and a deputy chief of staff (Gabi Ashkenazi) who exercises considerable control, Ya'alon is a weak chief of staff who gets in trouble even when he doesn't need to.

The latest negative indicator came last week with the appointment of Brig. Gen. Elazar Stern, the chief education officer, as general in command of Manpower Branch.

No enemy intelligence agency, no matter how it twisted its thinking to try to get into the logical processes of the Israeli military mind, could have come up with such a sorry, eccentric appointment. The very mention of the name Stern, an old-fashioned politruk, causes ferment among IDF officers.

Now he will be a member of the general staff and deputy director general of army human resources at a time of tremendous change and budget cuts. The head of manpower has significant leverage to shape the senior officer corps.

Among other things, he is the authority that ratifies promotions for lieutenant colonels who are not field commanders. Command generals and branch heads, who need him to keep promises to their officers, swallow their pride and go cap in hand to the manpower commander.

He also has authority in the vague realm known as "National Missions" - educational, social, and political - that are imposed on the army. It's an active minefield just waiting to blow up under the impact of Stern's enthusiastic strides and Ya'alon's clumsy feet.

For the last 20 years, the command of Manpower Branch has been like the chief of staff's prize for the cleanest mess, moving from the paratroopers to the air force and back. In the traditional dispute over whether to put a divisional or corps commander, or a professional bureaucrat, as head of the branch, Stern is on the margin of both groups - but at least he has the red boots of the paratroopers.

To his only credit it can at least be said that he did not appoint himself. Hearing the populist assessment Mofaz saddled him with, Ya'alon on Sunday took on responsibility for the appointment.

The Basic Law for the Army and the political reality of Israel turn the chief of staff, whether he likes it or not, into an important player who is often even more important than the defense minister. Ya'alon's own impediments prevent him from adopting that role, leaving the field open to Mofaz.

Mofaz and Ya'alon have active-passive, dominant-submissive, tyrant-subject relations. The former chief of staff does not teach his heir - he tortures him. Through Ya'alon's own generosity, Mofaz became a super ministerial chief of staff. Ya'alon stayed silent when Mofaz, with the help of a junior officer in Manpower Branch, tried to get elected to the Knesset with a false representation of the date he was formally discharged from the army. It took Justice Michel Cheshin to kicked Mofaz off the Likud list.

It's not that Ya'alon doesn't have an opinion - he makes it known, but he doesn't fight for it. Like the officers who grind their teeth in the Central Command, he knows the settler outposts in the occupied territories disrupt political progress. He could, as sovereign in the territories, order them evacuated and challenge Mofaz to bring a proposal to the government to have him fired, which would be rejected.

To get the IDF out of the political arena and leave that to Mofaz and his aides, Ya'alon refused to appoint Brig. Gen. Eibal Giladi, the head of the Strategic Planning Division, as head of Planning Branch. Planning is no longer a player in matters like a meeting between Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ahmed Qureia.

With the departures of Giladi and Planning Branch Commander Maj. Gen. Giora Euiland, two of the best political and strategic minds in the IDF in many years, the Planning Branch - which among other things has the organizational memory of the peace process and the security process - will shrink, reduced to dealing with building the military force.

This is not shooting oneself in the foot - it is conducting brain surgery that leaves the brain outside the body. An army that crowns someone like Stern and throws out someone like Giladi is not the IDF that Ya'alon was supposed to lead for the long march ahead.