Amos Harel
February 10, 2010 - 1:00am

Severe tension has developed between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi - Barak is furious over what he sees as Ashkenazi's efforts to get his term extended for an exceptional fifth year. This issue prompted senior ministry officials to lash out at IDF Spokesman Avi Benayahu on Tuesday.

Ashkenazi is slated to finish his four-year term in February 2011. Three weeks ago, however, Haaretz reported that he is angling for a fifth year, claiming the sensitive security situation and the lack of a suitable replacement make this necessary.

Publicly, Ashkenazi vehemently denies this. Nevertheless, people who support the idea, including some retired senior officers, have been quietly exploring it with various politicians.

Tuesday night, Channel 1 television reported that several senior ministers are pushing the idea, and therefore, a fifth year seems likely. That sparked a furious reaction from the Defense Ministry.

"The defense establishment and the cabinet have great esteem for the chief of staff, but the question of extending his term for another year never has been discussed in any forum," one senior official said. "The publication of tonight's [i.e. last night's] report, a product of Avi Benayahu's school, generates contempt for the chief of staff and the institution of the chief of staff."

In response, the IDF Spokesman's Office said, "An extension of the chief of staff's term is irrelevant at this stage and is not something the IDF is dealing with. The army was not involved in this report. Beyond that, we will not be dragged into baseless personal smears.

Relations between Barak and Ashkenazi have been tense for several months, but this is the first time tension has boiled over in such a public fashion. Barak is apparently unhappy about both Ashkenazi's public popularity - which has generated speculation about his political future - and certain aspects of his conduct toward the government.

The tension worsened with the recent appointment of Yoni Koren as Barak's chief of staff, since he has brought a more aggressive style to the Defense Ministry, resulting both in clashes within the defense establishment and strident comments in the media. There is also personal tension between Koren and Benayahu, who is one of Ashkenazi's closest advisors. Ministry sources who are not close to Barak said the tension between Barak's office and Ashkenazi's has been very apparent recently.

Though Barak's office did not say so explicitly Tuesday night, the defense minister is apparently not interested in keeping Ashkenazi on for a fifth year. And while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will also be involved, Barak will be the key player in determining who the next chief of staff is.

Four people are currently being bruited as possible successors to Ashkenazi: Deputy Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, GOC Northern Command Gadi Eizenkot, GOC Southern Command Yoav Gallant and Maj. Gen. (res.) Moshe Kaplinsky, who served as deputy chief of staff until 2007 and is now CEO of the Israeli division of Shai Agassi's electric car company, Better Place. Ashkenazi would like the job to go to either Kaplinsky or Eizenkot. Barak has yet to express an opinion, but is thought to prefer one of the three candidates who are still in active service.


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