On September 4, 2003, three Israeli F-15s swept in just below the dark grey clouds over Auschwitz, flying in low enough so the Stars of David on their wings were visible as they thundered over the train tracks in the middle of the camp.
The lead pilot in the formation was Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel, today head of the IDF Planning Division and then commander of the Tel Nof Air Force Base.
As his plane ducked in low over the Nazi death camp, Eshel, the son of Holocaust survivors, read out the following statement which was broadcast on the ground: "We pilots of the Air Force, flying in the skies above the camp of horrors, arose from the ashes of the millions of victims and shoulder their silent cries, salute their courage and promise to be the shield of the Jewish people and its nation Israel."
Five years later, Eshel, today a member of the IDF General Staff, has not forgotten that flyover, a picture of which hangs on the wall in his office on the eighth floor of the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv. He admits that often, during important and sensitive meetings, around his desk he glances at the picture for insight.
"I look at the picture and see that every challenge can be overcome," the 49-year-old fighter pilot says. "If we rose from ashes, we can achieve even more."
With that in mind, Eshel sat down last week with The Jerusalem Post for an exclusive interview during which he surveyed the various threats and challenges Israel faces today, two years after the 2006 Second Lebanon War and ahead of a potential conflict with Iran.
While Israel has enjoyed over two years of quiet in the North and for several months in the South (following the cease-fire in Gaza) Eshel warns that while there might not be fighting on the ground, Israel is still engaged in a terrorism "war of attrition."
"There is an axis of evil that includes Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas and other Jihad elements who are fighting against us all the time," he explains. "The fight changes in intensity from time to time. Sometimes they're launching missiles at us and sometimes they're arming and preparing to launch."
As head of the Planning Division, Eshel is responsible for formulating the IDF's multi-year plan and "strategic assessments" that analyze different regional threats.
The father of three and graduate of Auburn University in Alabama and the Israeli National Defense College, Eshel was drafted into the prestigious Pilot's Course in 1977 and quickly climbed the ranks. He flew A-4 Skyhawks during the first Lebanon War and later became commander of a squadron of F-4 Phantoms. He commanded the Ramon and Tel Nof Bases and in 2006 was appointed deputy IAF commander under then-IAF chief Maj.-Gen. Elazar Shkedy.
Eshel became renowned for the 2003 Auschwitz flyover, but within the IDF he has enjoyed the respect of his counterparts for his close to three decades of service, during which he spearheaded the revolutionary post-Second Lebanon War improvements to interoperability between the IAF and IDF Ground Forces.
The interview with Eshel took place the day Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly and told the Los Angeles Times that Israel was doomed like "an airplane that has lost its engine."
"I don't know what they [Iran] will do with the capability, but nuclear power in radical hands is dangerous not just for Israel but for the entire world," Eshel says, warning that there is a possibility a nuclear device would be handed over to a non-state actor, such as a terror group.
Several years, he says, remain in which to stop Teheran. While most of the Western world views the Iranian threat in the same light Israel does, Eshel says that the UN sanctions imposed on Teheran have yet to really be effective.
"The international effort needs to be stepped up so [sanctions] can be effective," he explains. "Iran is continuing its race to nuclear power and everything needs to be done to stop it."
As the former deputy head of the air force and a future candidate to lead the IDF's strategic "long-arm" branch, Eshel is intimately familiar with all of the military preparations vis-Ã -vis any possible Israeli strike on Iran. He says it is impossible to predict what the US will do and that the ultimate decision of whether to strike Iran or not would likely be up to President George W. Bush.
"The IDF needs to develop capabilities," he asserts. "The political echelon has said that 'all options are on the tableâ€š' and it is therefore our job to create the tools [for these options]."
But while Iran may lead the "axis of evil" in the Middle East, it is not the only threat that Israel currently faces. With fears mounting that Hizbullah will soon avenge the February assassination of arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh, the possibility of a new round in the North seems more real than ever.
Since the war, Hizbullah has built up a greater arsenal of surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles. Eshel believes, however, that the guerrilla group is deterred at the moment from engaging in a widespread conflict with Israel.
"The quiet in the North doesn't mean that tomorrow there won't be an explosion, but there is an understanding there that they were hit hard and that there are consequences for what they do," he said.
The group's entry into the Lebanese government and Beirut's decision to include Hizbullah's right of "resistance" to "liberate Lebanese territories" in its list of governing principles, creates, Eshel claims, a "window of opportunity" for Israel in the event that a new conflict erupts.
During the 2006 Lebanon War, he points out, Israel held back from striking at Lebanese government targets and infrastructure. If a new war breaks out, this policy may change now that Hizbullah and the Lebanese government are one and the same following the government's adoption of the guerrilla group's right to resistance in its policy statement.
"I suggest the Lebanese government understands what it is doing when adopting the weapon of resistance as one of its tools," he says. "A sovereign state needs to be held responsible for action that is taken as a result of policy statements it makes when saying that resistance is a legitimate tool." Eshel also rejects the theory - initiated by European countries - that if the IDF pulls out of the Shaba Farms and the northern part of the split town of Ghajar, Hizbullah will no longer have an excuse to continue its resistance against Israel.
He says that Israeli policy is to negotiate the withdrawal from the Shaba Farms in the framework of a comprehensive peace deal with Syria and Lebanon and that a solution for Ghajar is currently under IDF consideration.
In addition, Eshel says, Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah "will continue to come up with ideas how to maintain the struggle - there will always be something." As head of the Planning Division, Eshel is charged with overseeing and maintaining IDF relations with foreign militaries and governments. He conducts strategic dialogues with the United States, Egypt and throughout Europe.
In this capacity, he is also responsible for Israeli relations with UNIFIL, the peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, and for overseeing implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war.
Hizbullah, he says, is building military positions all across Lebanon - in the North, south and center. And while 1701 is not being fully implemented, Israel is still better off, he says, with the peacekeeping force's presence in southern Lebanon than without it.
"1701 is not being implemented today to a satisfactory level," he says. "But the question needs to be whether it is right to cancel the mandate and if that is a better alternative... [UNIFIL] being there is better than not being there." Hizbullah, he says, is not the only one to draw conclusions from the last war and foreign militaries have stood in line to study some of Israel's successes, mainly those involving the IAF and the bombing of dozens of missile launchers. One example was the first night of the war when IAF fighter jets bombed over 90 long-range missile launchers in just over 30 minutes, neutralizing Hizbullah's ability to launch missiles deep into Israel. The United States, in comparison, failed to destroy by air even one missile launcher during the First Gulf War in 1991.
He sums up the war with a "missed" feeling and a sense that Israel could have done better. Nevertheless, he says there were also some "phenomenal results" that militaries from around the world have stood up to look at.
One consequence of the most recent war was the new emphasis the IDF has decided to place on improving interoperability and operational cooperation between the air and ground forces. The roots for this were actually laid by Eshel four years ago during Operation Days of Penitence, which was launched in Gaza after two children were killed by a Kassam rocket in Sderot. Over 100 Palestinians were killed during the operation.
At the time, Eshel headed the IAF's Air Division and set up a joint command center with the Gaza Division and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). The establishment of the joint center helped close "operational circuits" between ground forces and the IAF in real time, instead of waiting for orders to be sent back and forth from the Kirya in Tel Aviv to Gaza.
Today, as head of IDF Planning, Eshel continues this tradition and regularly travels to the Golan and the Negev to watch and participate in ground forces exercises.
There, he says, he sees how the IDF has changed and learned lessons from the war's failures. There is no doubt, he says, that professionally speaking, the IDF is better prepared today to face its wide range of challenges. But what is even more important is the spark he now sees in the eyes of regular combat soldiers, a spark he says was missing following the war.
Despite the improvement, Eshel does not believe that the IDF can stop and rest. The day before the interview, an east Jerusalem resident rammed his car into a group of soldiers touring downtown Jerusalem and a Palestinian woman threw acid in the eyes of a Golani soldier manning a checkpoint outside of Nablus.
"Look there," he points out his office's panoramic windows. "Do you see the hill poking out between the Sheraton City Tower and the other building? That's Samaria." While Iran, according to some Israeli leaders poses an existential threat to Israel, the terror "war of attrition" that Eshel said Israel is facing is fought in the West Bank - in places that can be seen from the Kirya in Tel Aviv.
While Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas continue to hold negotiations in pursuit of a peace deal, the defense establishment believes they will not reach an agreement by the end of the year, regardless of US pressure.
Despite these assessments, one example of success, Eshel says, can already be seen in Jenin, where Israel has eased restrictions on Palestinian travel rights, enabled Israeli Arabs to enter the city for business and permitted the deployment of hundreds of newly-trained PA soldiers to combat crime and enforce law and order.
Eshel says that the plan has yet to completely succeed, but that with time and the right results, Israel would be willing to adopt the Jenin model in other West Bank cities. In the meantime, he says, the Jenin model has created "momentum" and a feeling of "potential" on the ground.
Despite this potential, Eshel, who steers clear of diplomatic declarations, is not optimistic about the possible reunification of the Palestinian people as well as the Fatah-run West Bank with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
He stresses the need for the Palestinians to make a decision that they want to fight terror and get rid of Hamas. He says there are also "signs" that the PA has realized this and is preparing to take action against Hamas in the West Bank.
"They understand that if they want to govern, they'll have to take action," he explains.
Before Hamas took over Gaza in June 2007, Fatah had four times the number of soldiers and weapons. But, he says, they still lost, not because of a shortage in forces but in will.
"In Gaza they had all the security control and weapons," he says. "But there was incompetence, and they still don't [yet] have the ability to deliver." Eshel's overall prognosis for the coming years foresees the possibility of war on a number of fronts. He says a conflict in Gaza could easily develop into a simultaneous conflict in the North, as well, and vice versa.
But at the same time, he sees a number of "windows of opportunities" as he calls them. Hizbullah's position in the Lebanese government may end up restraining the group, and Hamas was the one who, after all, begged Israel to agree to the cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. With regard to Iran, there is still time, he stresses, for the international community to step up efforts to stop Teheran's nuclear program.
Whether these opportunities are taken advantage of will be seen in the near future. For the time being, the hill in Samaria seems closer when looking out at the Middle East from Eshel's office.
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