JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israel appointed Major General Benny Gantz as new military chief on Sunday, ending months of bitter infighting among top generals as it grapples with political changes sweeping the region.

Gantz, 51, replaces Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, whose term as chief of staff of the armed forces ends on Monday.

"General Benny Gantz is an excellent officer and an experienced commander," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the cabinet unanimously approved him as next chief of staff.

Netanyahu said he hoped Gantz would help heal the rifts in the military, especially at a time of uncertainty in the Middle East.

"This appointment will held stabilise the Israel Defence Forces. This is always important, but even more so at this time of deep tremors that have hit our region," Netanyahu said.

Israel is nervously watching developments in the region following the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Friday after 18 days of nationwide protests which drew hundreds of thousands on to the streets.

Massive rallies turned to a jubilant city-wide party after Mubarak handed power to the military, which has vowed to carry out a transition to a democratically elected civilian government.

The military reassured Israel on Saturday that Cairo would continue to respect its 1979 peace treaty with the Jewish state, in a statement immediately welcomed by Netanyahu.

"The longstanding peace treaty between Israel and Egypt has greatly contributed to both countries and is the cornerstone for peace and stability in the entire Middle East," Netanyahu said in his initial reaction on Saturday.

Despite the assurances, Israel is still nervously watching its southern neighbour, fearful that the fall of Mubarak could allow for the rise of an Islamist government which could break off the peace treaty.

With the Islamist Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip, events in Egypt -- described by some analysts as a political tsunami -- could directly threaten Israel's stability and challenge its military.

Gantz, a former deputy chief of staff, was second choice for the tough post after the general initially designated for the job was disqualified over allegations that he had illegally grabbed land around a luxury villa he built.

The discarded candidate, Major General Yoav Galant, who was nominated for the post last year, told local media he was the victim of a conspiracy by his rivals.

The bitter infighting was dubbed the "battle of the generals" during which an allegedly forged document aimed at discrediting Galant was circulated.

The turmoil also led to a deep rift between Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Ashkenazi, with the two no longer on speaking terms. Galant was seen as Barak's candidate.

Barak adopted a conciliatory tone during Sunday's cabinet meeting, describing Gantz as "talented, rich in experience and accepted by all the generals.

"We salute General Gantz and wish him well as the next chief of staff," Barak said.

Born on June 9, 1959 in the southern village of Kfar Achim, Gantz joined the army as a conscript in 1977, completing the tough selection course for the paratroops.

In 1979, he graduated officers' school, and went on to serve as a paratroop company commander and platoon commander.

In 1989, he became head of Shaldag, the air force's special commando unit, and in 1994 he returned to the army to command a brigade and later a division in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

He has also served as the head of the army liaison unit dealing with UN forces in Lebanon and the Lebanese army, as commander of the northern Israel region, covering the Lebanon and Syria borders, and as head of ground forces.

In 2007, he became military attache to the United States, returning to Israel and in September 2009 becoming Ashkenazi's deputy.

Gantz has a BA in history from Tel Aviv University, a masters degree in Political Science from Haifa University and a masters in national resource management from the National Defence University in the United States.

He is married and a father of four.