Mofaz Picks Halutz as Next IDF Chief of Staff

Former Israel Air Force chief and Deputy Chief of Staff Halutz was leading contender to replace Ya'alon; cabinet expected to approve posting.

Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Dan Halutz is set to become the next chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz announced on Tuesday that he will recommend to the government that Halutz be appointed chief of staff in place of Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon.

The cabinet is expected to back the appointment once it has been approved by the Bach Committee on senior appointments.

The appointment of Halutz stirred mixed responses in the political arena. While the right congratulated the move, left-wing MKs were fiercely against it saying it was inappropriate.

Halutz has been the leading contender to replace Ya'alon since it was announced last week that Ya'alon's term of office would not be extended for a customary fourth year.

Halutz is set to take over as head of the military just 11 days before the implementation of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, which calls for the evacuation of the entire Gaza Strip and parts of the northern West Bank. Ya'alon hinted earlier this week that he may step down before his term of office ends on July 9.

Left slams Halutz's appointment Israel's political left slammed the decision to appoint Halutz, mainly because as commander of the air force, Halutz oversaw one of the most controversial air strikes during the Al-Aqsa Intifada: in July 2002, the air force dropped a one-ton bomb on a Gaza neighborhood to assassinate a Hamas militant. The militant, Salah Shehadeh, was killed along with 16 others.

In an interview with Haaretz in August 2002 Halutz defended the use of such a powerful bomb to kill Shehadeh as "militarily and morally" correct, despite the civilian casualties.

Following the Tuesday's announcement of the appointment, MK Yossi Sarid (Yahad) said "Ya'alon's dismissal was originally meant to allow the appointment of Halutz the crony as next chief of staff."

Yahad co-member MK Zahava Gal-On said "it is inappropriate to have the IDF headed by a man who sleeps well at night after giving orders to drop a bomb on innocent women and children."

MK Mohammed Barakeh (Hadash-Ta'al) slammed the appointment saying it was "a disgrace that cannot be wiped away. It is unsurprising that Sharon and Mofaz preferred to appoint [Halutz] as Chief of Staff rather than shoving him out of the army. After all they are a violent trio that lacks any values and humane norms."

The right, on the other hand, took the appointment rather well. Coalition chairman, MK Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) said "[Halutz's] appointment is an outright answer to the radical left that went all the way to the High Court of Justice with their failed attempt to curb his promotion in the IDF."

MK Effi Eitam (NRP) said that Halutz is a professional, value-filled and brave officer. "I am all hope that he will lead the IDF wisely with his talents and values in such a sensitive stage in the relation between the army and civilians," Eitam said.

Opposition leader, MK Yossef Lapid (Shinui) expressed confidence that Halutz would make an excellent chief of staff.

An edge over Ashkenazi Halutz's only real competition for the position was Major General Gabi Ashkenazi, his predecessor as deputy chief of staff. Ashkenazi is expected to retire from the army and will probably be appointed director general of the Defense Ministry.

Mofaz met Tuesday with both Halutz and Ashkenazi and informed them of his decision.

Halutz was seen to have an advantage over Ashkenazi given his close ties with Sharon. The prime minister and his son, MK Omri Sharon, are friends with Halutz, and hold him in high regard.

Halutz, 56, lives in Moshav Hagor near Kfar Sava in the center of the country. He became commander of the Israel Air Force in 2000 and was appointed deputy chief of staff in 2004.

Despite making a point of declaring his apolitical stance, Halutz is believed to be on the right side of the political divide.

During the first year of the intifada, he declared that "Ganim and Kadim are home." Today, both northern West Bank settlements are slated for evacuation under the disengagement.

Some IDF General Staff members have expressed reservations about the appointment of Halutz, who comes from the air force and has no ground combat experience. Halutz rejects these claims, arguing that "you don't need experience as a sheep to be appointed a shepherd."

Defense panel members slam Mofaz During Tuesday's meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, MKs harshly criticized Mofaz and his decision not to extend Ya'alon's term of office to a fourth year. Leader of the opposition, MK Yosef Lapid (Shinui) told Mofaz, "You should not have announced the end of Ya'alon's term of office out of the blue like that, especially when this a chief of staff who has chalked up impressive victories during the intifada."

Mofaz reportedly decided to replace Ya'alon because he believed that he would not be able to rely on him during implementation of the disengagement plan. Sharon and Mofaz were apparently angered by remarks Ya'alon made about the pullout and were concerned he is not sufficiently committed to the move.

Ya'alon has rejected the charges, saying that while he had made professional comments about the plan, he had never opposed it.

MK Ran Cohen (Yahad) said to Mofaz that his decision to let Ya'alon go was a mistake. "When you fire a chief of staff who carried out all the tasks he was charged with, this sends a terrible message to the army," said Cohen. Fellow Yahad MK, Yossi Sarid, told Mofaz, "Even you when you were chief of staff spoke out and you comments sometimes provoked the ire of the defense minister at the time, who considered sacking you. You did to your colleague what was not done to you."

Mofaz said he was at peace with his decision.