As if to underscore the strength of their working relationship, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised Sunday to work with Defense Minister Amir Peretz in determining who will succeed former Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz. "The defense minister and myself will decide soon which recommendation will be brought for the approval of the government," Olmert said during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday. There have been many reports recently suggesting that Peretz and Olmert rarely cooperate on matters pertaining to policy.
Leaving the stage or setting it?
Also Sunday, Olmert praised Halutz for his long years of dedicated service to Israel.
"Lt. Gen. Halutz is one of the greatest and bravest warriors of Israel over the last 40 years. He was one of the greatest fighter pilots in air force history and led its fighters on its boldest missions," Olmert said.
"We will still find the way for the government of Israel and state of Israel to thank him for his many years of service. From here and in the name of the government I send him a warm hug and deep appreciation."
Meanwhile, sources close to Peretz said over the weekend that the appointment for Halutz's replacement would be made in the "next day or so."
Peretz plans to formulate his opinion concerning the candidates to replace Halutz as IDF chief of staff by Sunday evening, amidst predictions that Defense Ministry Director-General Maj.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi will be chosen as the next commander of the IDF.
According to officials, Peretz will meet with author of Israel's defense doctrine former minister Dan Meridor on Sunday, following which he will make a decision concerning the candidate he plans to bring to the cabinet for approval.
After making his decision, officials said, Peretz will coordinate with Olmert and bring the candidate's name for review by a judicial committee, run by Judge Ya'acov Terkel, to determine whether there are any legal issues involved. The candidate's name will then be presented to the cabinet.
Olmert has scheduled a series of meetings this week with political and defense officials on the issue. Officials close to Peretz said the defense minister planned to use "his right by law" to bring a candidate to the cabinet by the middle of the week at the latest.
Officials said the decision to speed up the process could be due to Halutz's upcoming testimony before the government-appointed Winograd Committee investigating the performance of the political and military echelons during the second Lebanon war. IDF sources said over the weekend that Halutz was scheduled to appear before the committee this Thursday.
There were conflicting reports coming out of the Prime Minister's Office on Saturday night. According to Channel 10, Olmert plans to ask Halutz - who announced his resignation last Tuesday - to postpone his departure from the military until after the Winograd Committee publishes its interim report, set for sometime in mid-February. Political sources rejected the report and said the goal was to appoint a new army chief "as soon as possible."
On Sunday, Olmert will meet with former chiefs of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Dan Shomron and Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya'alon. On Monday, he is slated to meet with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman MK Tzahi Hanegbi.
The concern is, according to the television report, that the man chosen for the post will be labeled "problematic" by the Winograd report.
The three leading candidates are Ashkenazi - said to be Peretz's favorite - Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky and OC Ground Forces Command Maj.-Gen. Benny Gantz.
On Friday, Peretz continued with his consultations, meeting with OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh and OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant. The chances of one of the two being appointed to the top job are considered low, but they are seen as potential compromise candidates if Olmert and Peretz are unable to agree on a choice.
Herb Keinon contributed to the report.