In Talks With Officials, PM Names Gantz, Ashkenazi and Kaplinsky as Candidates for IDF Chief

Netanyahu tells PM he'll back choice of IDF chief; Peres: Crisis after Lebanon war not as bad as in 1973.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met Thursday with a number of political figures to discuss the list of contenders for the position of Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, following Major General Dan Halutz's resignation earlier this week.

In talks with Benjamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Shaul Mofaz over the course of the day, Olmert mentioned the names of only three candidates - Major General Gabi Ashkenazi, Major General Moshe Kaplinsky and Major General Benny Gantz.

Other names mentioned in the media since Halutz's resignation - Major General (res.) Ilan Biran andM ajor General (res.) Shlomo Yanai, are apparently not realistic contenders for the race.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Haluz decided Thursday to appoint Major General (res.) Moshe Ivri-Soknik to the position of enlistment Northern Command enlistment officer.

The position, which Halutz had abolished a year ago, was created anew as part of changes made following the war in Lebanon.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday during their meeting that he would support any candidate chosen for the position of IDF chief of staff.

"We will stand behind any chief of staff that is chosen," Netanyahu told the prime minister. "That is the order of the day and we must take our time in order to implement the process in a better way."

Olmert will meet later in the day for talks with Ehud Barak, Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Shaul Mofaz.

Vice Premier Shimon Peres said earlier Thursday he believes that the crisis that has befallen the country in the wake of the second Lebanon war will pass, saying he expects a new Israel Defense Forces chief of staff to be selected within two weeks.

"I don't intend to close my eyes," Peres told participants at a conference at the Netanya Academic College. "We are in a crisis but the crisis will pass."

"We have talented people that can fill the position," continued Peres. "This is a less serious crisis than the one that followed the Yom Kippur War. We are a healthy nation and we will emerge from the crisis."

According to Peres, the exaggerated attention given in Israel to the failures of the second Lebanon war are what led the celebrations in Beirut over IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz's resignation.

Labor Minister Eitan Cabel said Thursday morning that he believes Defense Minister Amir Peretz's moment of truth is fast approaching, and possibly that of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as well.

In an interview with Israel Radio, Cabel said that following the resignation of Halutz, and in advance of the Winograd Committee's interim report, Olmert and Peretz must ponder their next steps. Cabel said he hopes they will make the right decisions.

Cabel added that there is nothing wrong with Olmert consulting former prime minister Ehud Barak and Labor MK Ami Ayalon regarding the appointment of Halutz's successor, saying he is certain the consultations are being held out of relevant considerations and not political ones.

Olmert, Peretz said likely to clash over successor to HalutzThe political establishment is bracing for a new clash between the prime and defense ministers, this time over the appointment of the new chief.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz's preferred replacement for Dan Halutz, who resigned on Wednesday, is Defense Ministry Director General Gabi Ashkenazi. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's preferences are less clear, but he is thought to favor Deputy Chief of Staff Moshe Kaplinsky.

Tensions between the two ministers were already visible on Wednesday night, after Olmert's office announced that the prime minister intended to lead the process of choosing a new chief of staff.

Olmert wants to finalize the choice and bring it to the cabinet for approval within 10 days.

Peretz also wants the decision made quickly, and therefore met on Wednesday with all three leading candidates: Ashkenazi, Kaplinsky and Commander of the Ground Forces Benny Gantz. The latter is considered a relative long shot.

Legally, only the defense minister is authorized to propose a candidate to the cabinet.

However, Olmert announced on Wednesday that he intends to play an active role in the process, and he has spoken with several senior officials over the last month to get their opinions on the various candidates to succeed Halutz. Given the already poor relationship between the two men, this could set the stage for another blowup.

Another possibility is that Olmert might take advantage of Halutz's resignation to fire Peretz -something that some of his advisers have been urging him to do. In that case, Olmert mightreplace Peretz with former prime minister Ehud Barak, who is currently running against Peretz for the Labor Party leadership.

Peretz announced on Wednesday that he has no intention of following Halutz's example and resigning voluntarily; rather, he said at an army graduation ceremony last night, he intends to remain on the job "and invest what is needed in order to implement the conclusions and lessons" of the various inquiries into the war.

According to Olmert's associates, the prime minister plans to consult with several other people about Halutz's replacement, including former defense ministers Shaul Mofaz, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Moshe Arens; former premiers Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres; former IDF chiefs of staff and reservist generals; Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni; and Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Tzachi Hanegbi. However, he will give special weight to the views of Barak and MK Ami Ayalon, who are the two leading contenders in the Labor leadership race and the most likely replacements for Peretz as defense minister. Both men are former senior defense officials.

Olmert said on Wednesday that he also plans to request an opinion from the Winograd Committee, which is investigating the war, so that the cabinet will not appoint someone whom the committee's probe has already revealed to be unsuitable. "We wouldn't want to appoint a chief of staff who will be receiving a warning letter from the committee a month later," explained an Olmert associate. However, it seems doubtful that the committee will accede to Olmert's request.

Several members of the IDF General Staff expressed support for Ashkenazi's candidacy on Wednesday, saying that the IDF needs an "outsider" to rehabilitate it after last summer's war in Lebanon. Ashkenazi left the IDF almost two years ago, and was therefore not directly implicated in the war's failures.

Halutz announced on Wednesday that he will remain on the job for another few weeks, in order to ensure an orderly transition for his successor.