Sharon, Mofaz Decide on IAF Chief as Next IDF Deputy Chief

Major General Dan Halutz, commander-in-chief of the Israel Air Force, will be appointed deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces in the summer, thereby becoming the front-runner to be the next chief of staff.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz chose Halutz at a meeting held last month. The decision has been relayed to IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon but the formal announcement won't come until mid-March.

The current deputy chief of staff, Major General Gabi Ashkenazi, is expected to take a study leave until Ya'alon's successor is named. Ya'alon took up his post in July 2002; the selection of the next chief of staff should come around summer 2005.

Halutz will end his tour of duty in the air force on April 4.

His appointment has a dual meaning: that Ashkenazi is no longer on the fast track to become chief of staff, and that Major General Doron Almog, formerly head of the IDF Southern Command and now on study leave in the U.S., will leave the army.

Halutz's appointment means the "red beret" (paratrooper) dynasty will come to an end in the IDF - the next chief of staff will either be a former Golani commander, or the air force commander-in-chief, and not an officer who came up through the paratroopers or the Sayeret Matkal elite special-operations force (the last eight IDF chiefs of staff, over a period of 30 years, have followed this paratroopers or Matkal route).

Halutz, who was born in 1948, will be the oldest deputy chief of staff in the IDF's history. He enlisted in 1966, served as a combat pilot during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and was discharged from the IDF later in the 1970s. He continued to serve as a pilot in the reserves, and re-enlisted as a career officer 23 years ago.

No former air force officer has ever become chief of staff (though one IDF chief, Haim Laskov, commanded the air force during its formative years to ensure that it followed orders from the General Staff, and from the defense minister, who at the time was David Ben-Gurion).