Feet on the Ground, Head in the Sky

Amir Eshel is apparently in line to become the air force's next commander. In that capacity, one wonders, will the officer who led the flyby at Auschwitz send his pilots to bomb Natanz?

For years, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel has avoided the limelight. It's hard to remember even one remark by the head of the Israel Defense Forces plans and policy directorate that drew politicians' wrath. The same cannot be said for many of his General Staff colleagues.

That tactic was supposed to ensure Eshel's smooth transition to becoming commander of the air force - the branch where he spent most of his military career. However, two developments threw spanners in the works. One was the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to favor appointing his military secretary, Maj. Gen. Yohanan Locker, as the next commander of the force. The second development is the reality-show atmosphere with which the media cover every high-ranking IDF appointment.

Eshel - Kafri - Feb 2012
Nir Kafri

Chief of Staff Benny Gantz's solid backing for Eshel is, however, expected to tip the scales. Last Monday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak met separately with Eshel, Locker and a third candidate, Brig. Gen. Nimrod Shefer. Barak, who thought Eshel was a worthy candidate back in 2008 - though Maj. Gen. Ido Nechushtan was ultimately chosen - will likely go along with Gantz. Barring a last-minute surprise, Eshel's appointment will be announced shortly and he will take over from Nechushtan in May.

Still, caution is necessary when making such statements. Less than a year ago, Haaretz ran a profile of Y., the Shin Bet security service's deputy head. He was considered a shoo-in to succeed Yuval Diskin. But soon afterward, Netanyahu decided to appoint the second candidate, Yoram Cohen.

Eshel, 52, was drafted in 1977. Two years later, he completed a combat pilots' course. He was the commander of F-16 and Phantom squadrons, and head of the Ramon and Tel Nof airbases, and of group squadrons. He also served as air force chief of staff during the Second Lebanon War and at the time that foreign sources reported Syria's nuclear installation had been bombed by Israel.

Eshel rose to public fame outside the air force when he led a flyover of Israeli fighter planes above Auschwitz in 2003. In a rare interview, he told Haaretz in 2009, "Dan Halutz, who was the air force commander, came back from a visit to Poland and said the Poles had invited us to fly Israeli fighter planes as part of the event marking their air force's 85th anniversary. Within two minutes I was in his office. I said to Halutz: Tell them we are accepting their invitation, on condition we do a flyby over Auschwitz. He almost fell out of his chair. He asked me: Where did you come up with that? I told him I had been thinking about the idea for years."

The Israelis needed much persuasion to obtain the Poles' cooperation. Ultimately, the planes flew fairly low over Auschwitz, as Nechushtan led a military delegation at a ceremony below. The planes were photographed above the entrance to Auschwitz in what was perceived as a symbolic demonstration of might by Israel and the IDF.

"I went to Poland to bring back that image," Eshel said. "I told the pilots: For 800 years we did what we were told in that country. This time we will do what needs doing."

That photograph hangs in the offices of many senior Israeli figures. Former air force commander Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shkedy distributed copies as a farewell gift to his General Staff colleagues, and added a dedication: "To remember. Not to forget. To rely only on ourselves."

"The memory of the Holocaust frames everything we do," Eshel says. "But it has to be a sober-eyed view. You can't act from the gut here. It doesn't dull our senses to the point of doing nonsense. Absolutely not. We are people with our feet on the ground, but it's important to be cautious. What are 60 years in [the perspective of] history? Nothing, a comma."

A talented man

With the exception of the Military Intelligence director, the head of the plans and policy directorate is the General Staff member who is closest to politicians. The weakness of civilian institutions gives this department great power. Chiefs of staff also rely heavily on this post.

Eshel has maintained good relations with former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, and with Gantz and Barak. He was also smart enough not to get involved in the Harpaz affair, which involved alleged attempts to influence the chief-of-staff appointment.

Maj. Gen. (res. ) Giora Eiland, who was policy chief a decade ago, is excited at the prospect of Eshel heading the air force.

"It will be a terrific appointment," Eiland says. "Amir is one of the most talented people I know. He is apparently also an excellent pilot, but that's not something I know much about. He is a superb policy chief and is responsible more than anyone for preserving our strategic ties with the Americans. He has so many strengths: He takes initiative, and he takes a broad view. He possesses extraordinary integrity. He will tell the prime minister the right thing and not be afraid of the consequences."

Eshel apparently has no illusions of future promotions, of eventually becoming chief of staff. It has nothing to do with modesty. "Anyone who doesn't know him well might think he is a little like Napoleon, because of his self-confidence," Eiland says. "But the truth is that he is talented and collegial."

The problem lies in the precedent set by another skilled pilot, Dan Halutz, whose performance as chief of staff in the Second Lebanon War may have blocked that promotion track for pilots for 50 years to come.

Eshel told Haaretz in 2009 that Israel's big mistake in the 2006 war was that it missed its chance to make sharper, swifter moves.

"We could have scored a greater achievement. The big problem was that we did not understand the force at our disposal. We were in too much of a hurry to eulogize the outcome, though that does not absolve us of our mistakes." Still, he added, "I don't remember a time when we had this kind of deterrence against Hezbollah, even if that doesn't guarantee that the border won't blow up tomorrow morning."

Even though Eshel, as air force chief of operations in the late 1990s, did more than most to tighten cooperation with the ground forces, he and his air force colleagues still firmly believe in air power. Israel, he says, must fight short wars, which may necessitate massive air power in minimal time, to attain the greatest possible achievements before the international community intervenes.

"I don't want us to delude ourselves. There is no gimmick for every situation," he said in that 2009 interview. "The other side is developing capabilities. The military threat to Israel is becoming more acute in all sectors. The nature of wars is changing. There is no longer an enemy who raises a while flag on the hilltop and surrenders.

"In fact, the whole question of what constitutes victory has to be examined. The Six-Day War was an unquestionable victory, but how long did it take them to start shooting again? [David] Ben-Gurion grasped the balance of forces between the sides well, the disparities of size. There is no knockout. We are looking for one, but it's not to be had. Our enemies recognize our superiority in certain areas and are working hard to offset those advantages. They are using weapons for which we do not always have solutions we would like: missiles, rockets."

Restraint on Iran

Some consider Eshel a moderate when it comes to Iran. But about a month ago, when he was sent to brief foreign correspondents, he warned that a nuclear Iran would give rise to a "global nuclear jungle" and spur a Middle East arms race. Under the cover of a nuclear umbrella, Hezbollah and Hamas would allow themselves to do things they do not dare do today, and Israel's military maneuverability would be limited.

"When the other side has a nuclear capability and are willing to use it, you think twice," Eshel explained. "You are more restrained because you don't want to get into that ball game."

Eshel declined to say anything about a possible attack, but told the correspondents, "We have the ability to hit very, very hard, any adversary."

Regarding Syria, he agreed with those who are predicting that President Bashar Assad will fall. Israel's primary concern is who will control the vast stores of biological and chemical weapons in Syria after the regime collapses, he said. Eshel told the foreign correspondents that despite Assad's bitter fight against his opposition, his regime has spent about $2 billion on advanced antiaircraft systems over the past two years.

Speaking this week at a Herzliya conference, Nechushtan commented that military acquisitions by Israel's neighbors constitute "a challenge to Israel's aerial superiority." This is the first time the IDF has admitted this publicly. Nechushtan added that concern that Syrian weapons systems could find their way into other hands - a reference mostly to Hezbollah getting its hands on antiaircraft missiles - "is making us anxious."

In 2016, the first of the new F-35 fighter aircraft will arrive, following a deal struck two years ago. The F-35 "is not just another weapons system," Eshel told Haaretz. "Since the 1950s, Israel always has had the world's best fighter planes. This is perceived as a declaration. Fighter planes are a very significant component in a country's strength."

Long before the F-35s arrive, Israel will likely have to make a decision about attacking Iran. Will the officer who led the flyover at Auschwitz send his pilots to bomb Natanz and the enrichment facility at Fordo, near Qom? In the end, that will be up to the politicians. The air force commander's opinion will be important, of course, but it will not be the deciding factor. It's a reasonable guess that Eshel, if he is indeed appointed air force commander, will behave like Nechushtan: He will prepare the force for its mission as well as he can, but will not urge the cabinet to embark on such a controversial move.

Gantz's General Staff

Chief of Staff Benny Gantz has managed to appoint more than a third of the General Staff members within less than a year: Yair Golan as GOC Northern Command, Nitzan Alon as GOC Central Command, Eyal Eisenberg as GOC Home Front, Ram Rothberg as commander of the navy, Uzi Moscovich as head of the teleprocessing branch, Kobi Barak as head of the technological and logistics directorate, and Yossi Baiditz as commander of the military colleges. Maj. Gen. (res. ) Shai Avital was brought back from retirement to head the newly created Depth Corps, and Noam Tibon was promoted to major general as head of Northern Command Corps.

All these appointments were approved by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, but most were Gantz's initiatives. Gantz's associates admit that they accepted Barak's decision in the case of only one appointment: financial adviser to the chief of staff. The two compromised on a military advocate general candidate after a lengthy dispute.

There is another important appointment in the pipeline: the next deputy chief of staff, to succeed Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh. Gantz would very much like to see that post filled by the former GOC Northern Command Gadi Eizenkot, who is now on sabbatical. However, two of Eizenkot's close friends, Col. (res. ) Gabi Siboni and Mossad head Tamir Pardo, were involved in publicizing the Harpaz. The two testified that they did so without the knowledge of Eizenkot, even though he had previously shown them a copy of the document (which he received from Ashkenazi ).

Eizenkot, who was Ehud Barak's military secretary at the end of the 1990s, is highly regarded by the defense minister, though the Harpaz affair generated some tension between them. The state comptroller's report on the Harpaz affair might affect Barak and Gantz's decision about whether to appoint Eizenkot deputy chief of staff. The draft report will probably be disseminated next week.

Another possible candidate for deputy chief of staff is Maj. Avi Mizrahi, who completes his term as GOC Central Command this month. Eizenkot will have a leading role in Gantz's immediate team if he is appointed deputy. Others who will likely be prominent are Maj. Gen. Golan, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel and Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi.