Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz prefer different candidates to replace chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, but they are not at "swords' points" over the issue, senior government officials said Thursday night.
Olmert met Peretz Thursday, as he does every Thursday, and the two men separately held numerous consultations throughout the day with various politicians and defense establishment figures regarding the appointment.
Government officials said that it was "only natural" that Olmert felt comfortable with current Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, who was Ariel Sharon's military secretary, and that Peretz felt more comfortable with Maj.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi, the former deputy chief of staff who lost out to Halutz in 2005 and is currently the Defense Ministry's director-general. Halutz, who resigned Tuesday evening, is believed to support Kaplinsky for the job.
The other leading candidate is OC Ground Forces Command Maj.-Gen. Benny Gantz, who is said to be the favorite of former prime minister Ehud Barak. Barak met with Olmert about the matter on Thursday, but did not say afterward which candidate he backed.
Sources close to Olmert said the prime minister would be unlikely to force his choice on Peretz, thereby precipitating a possible coalition crisis. Olmert, the sources added, holds both Ashkenazi and Gantz in high regard as well.
In addition to meeting Barak, Olmert met with Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, Vice Premier Shimon Peres, and former defense ministers Shaul Mofaz and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. Only Ben-Eliezer weighed in afterward with his preference, recommending Ashkenazi for the job because he said he would not in any way be tainted by the findings of the Winograd Committee investigating the summer's war in Lebanon.
Netanyahu's spokesman said Netanyahu told Olmert that the Likud would back any candidate selected, because that is what was needed at this time. He also said that Olmert should consider "outside candidates," and - because of the importance of the decision - should take his time in making an appointment.
One of the outside candidates reportedly being considered for the position is OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. (res.) Ilan Biran, who is said to not be interested in the job. He reportedly recommended that Ashkenazi get the appointment with the hope that he would inherit his post as director-general of the Defense Ministry, a post he held in the past.
While senior defense officials close to Peretz told The Jerusalem Post Thursday that the defense minister planned to bring the name of a candidate to the upcoming cabinet meeting this Sunday, sources in Olmert's office said that the two would most agree on a candidate and present it in some 10 days' time.
Peres, speaking at a conference at the Netanya College after meeting Olmert, said the crisis that followed the 1973 Yom Kippur War was worse than the crisis Israel faces today in the aftermath of last summer's war in Lebanon.
"I know that Israel is going through a crisis. I do not want to belittle or close my eyes to it," said Peres, but he added that he had been around long enough to put it in perspective.
Peres said he did not think the appointment of a new chief of staff should be a public process until there is a formal recommendation.
"To protect the integrity of the candidates, it should be handled discretely and not with an eye to party politics. The government should appoint him based on the recommendations of the defense minister and the prime minister," Peres said.
Peres said he was worried more about the atmosphere of hysteria that pervaded the nation than about the failures of any single politician or military leader.
Following his speech at a memorial service in honor of the 38th anniversary of the sinking of the INS Dakar, Peretz told The Jerusalem Post that when he had something to say about the appointment, "I will let you know." Earlier in the day, Peretz met with former chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Dan Shomron, who investigated the performance of the General Staff during the war in Lebanon and recommended that while faults were found, Halutz should remain in his post.
During the ceremony at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, families of the sailors who were lost at sea in the Dakar submarine came over to Halutz and praised him for his decision to take responsibility for the war and resign. "Be strong. We love you," said one mother of a sailor. "The 40 years that you gave to this country are more than enough."
Halutz meanwhile conducted his day as usual and did not cancel any work meetings that were set up before he announced his resignation. Sources close to the chief of staff said that Halutz was "all smiles throughout the day" and was looking forward to leaving the post.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.