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Former Shin Bet security service chief Avi Dichter and former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon are both on the threshold of entering politics - but have yet to cross it. Dichter will reenter civilian life on August 31, meaning that he will be able to run for Knesset, following his six-month cooling-off period, as long as elections are not held before March 1, 2006. Ya'alon's official release date from the IDF that will start the clock ticking on his cooling-off period is not yet known.

During his tenure, Dichter enjoyed public prominence similar to that of a chief of staff, and he leaves his post with a fat dowry of popular support. Now, as he gathers data for a decision on whether to enter politics, the problem facing him is similar to that of retiring army officers who must decide between a lump-sum pension payment or a monthly stipend. A Yigal Allon-style retreat to the national reserves does not guarantee that the public will begin longing for the retiree's return, and that when the day comes, he will be called upon to save the people.

Chief of staff, Shin Bet chief or any other senior military title is a depreciating asset, not a product with a long shelf life. If you do not strike while the iron on your shoulder is hot, it quickly evaporates in favor of new occupants of lofty national posts. Shaul Mofaz's market value was much higher on the day he resigned as IDF chief of staff than it was later on, when he had to share the security dais with his successor, Ya'alon. Dan Halutz has already begun to threaten Ya'alon's market share during his first month in office - and Halutz, too, will not be chief of staff forever.

In their personal qualities, and despite the framework that shaped their adult lives, security officials are not necessarily less fit for politics than diplomats (Abba Eban, Benjamin Netanyahu), jurists (Haim Zadok, Dan Meridor) or journalists (Yossi Sarid, Yosef Lapid). The difference is that in the security services, people remain as long as they are advancing toward the top, and they either reach that goal, or are halted en route, at a relatively late age. Furthermore, their departure is irreversible.

The army is a ladder, while politics is a wheel. Senior security officials err when they read Clausewitz - "War is a continuation of diplomacy by other means" - in reverse: Politics is a continuation of defense by means of political parties. There is a substantive difference between executing a policy as an officer and helping to set it as a cabinet member. Success in the army does not translate into success in politics if the transition from one field to the other is too quick.

Almost all retired army officers who forget this have failed in their first senior government post - Moshe Dayan as defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister, Ariel Sharon as defense minister, Ehud Barak as prime and defense minister. Others melted away even before then, such as Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who briefly ran for prime minister out of dislike for Barak and Netanyahu, but quickly dropped down to become the deputy of Yitzhak Mordechai, who was animated by similar considerations, and fell even further.

If Ya'alon's main plank as a novice politician is revenge for his ouster by Sharon and Mofaz, he will have trouble winning. The loss of his fourth year as chief of staff - something he never defined as his main goal until the day he lost it, and therefore also never devised sophisticated tactics for achieving - demonstrates that he is not built for practical politics. Ya'alon was proud of his slightly exaggerated self-image as a ruler - an important tool for drawing straight lines, but less useful than a compass for drawing circles. Ya'alon pushed Mofaz into a corner, from which Mofaz sallied forth and toppled Ya'alon - at the price of exposing them both as lacking an aptitude for maneuvering and dialogue.

An air force pilot, however high his military ranking, will, when he seeks a job with El Al, enter the airline's training course as a cadet, and then become a first officer before being made a captain. But the desire to move quickly into a position of national influence pushes senior security officials onto the prime ministerial track of one of the two major parties. This finding, however, does not necessarily apply to the former Shin Bet chief: He is said to be willing to make do with a medium-high position for the nonce, because influence is not the exclusive province of prime ministers.

While they are driving their government cars down the highway of Israeli policy, there is no substantial difference between the Ya'alons and the Dichters, even if they pass one other on the right or the left from time to time. Only when the road ends, the car stops and they are forced to get out do they discover that there is a crossroads before them, and they must choose which way to turn, right or left. Only rarely do senior security officials discover a different option: They can go west, toward the crossroads, or east, to a traffic circle where they can circle endlessly until the moment of decision.