Tension between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi hit a new high point on Thursday as Barak began interviewing candidates to replace Ashkenazi, who still has six months left to his term.Military sources close to Ashkenazi said Barak’s decision to start the process so early and to announce the next army chief by the end of the month was a ploy to force the chief of staff into early retirement. The sources said Ashkenazi did not plan to play into Barak’s hands and would remain at the IDF’s helm until the scheduled end of his term.RELATED:Undermining Ashkenazi, the army & the countryAshkenazi's term won't be extendedBarak on Thursday tried to downplay the frictions. “Israel is blessed with a terrific chief of staff,’ he said, “and I can only promise that we will continue to work together until his last day in office... In the end, the chief of staff and I are responsible together for the state’s security.”Relations between the two men have been sour for over a year due to professional disagreements and Barak’s fear that Ashkenazi will enter politics following his retirement from the army. Even the two men’s close circles are said not to get along: IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Avi Benayahu, for example, is persona non grata in the Defense Ministry due to his bad ties with Barak’s bureau chief Yoni Koren. Ashkenazi is scheduled to step down in February 2011, after Barak decided in April not to extend his term by a fifth year. At the time, Ashkenazi, 56, was said to be interested in having his term extended by a year in light of the threats that Israel faced from Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas.A decision to extend his term would have fit in with the general culture of recent appointments in the defense establishment, particularly the government’s decision last year to extend the tenure of Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) director Yuval Diskin, who are also expected to step down in 2011.On Thursday, Barak met with OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Avi Mizrahi. On Friday, he will meet OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant and OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot. Next week, Barak is scheduled to meet with Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen.Benny Gantz and the IDF’s military attaché in Washington, Maj.-Gen. Gadi Shamni.One candidate said to have a good chance is Galant, 51, a former commander of the navy’s elite commando unit Flotilla 13, better known as the Shayetet. Galant is reportedly close to Barak and several of his top associates, and therefore enjoys an advantage over some of the other candidates.At the same time, the deputy chief of staff – in this case, Gantz – also enjoys a slight advantage over the other contenders due to his position as the natural successor and to his frequent participation in meetings with the political echelon.