Analysis: Pilot over Auschwitz - maybe Iran too?

Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel served as the lead pilot in one of the Israel Air Force’s most memorable missions – a flight over the Auschwitz death camp in Poland.

IAF F15 fighters over Auschwitz BIG (photo credit: IAF Spokesman)
IAF F15 fighters over Auschwitz BIG
(photo credit: IAF Spokesman)
On September 4, 2003, Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel served as the lead pilot in one of the Israel Air Force’s most memorable missions – a flight over the Auschwitz death camp in Poland.
Under the agreement with the Polish government, the IAF F-15s were supposed to fly high above Auschwitz, and way out of sight.
The day of the flight though, Eshel convened the other pilots and announced that they were going to fly below the clouds so they could be seen by the IDF officers who would be holding a ceremony along the train tracks below.
“We listened to the Polish for 800 years,” Eshel was quoted as telling the other pilots at the time. “Today, we don’t have to listen anymore.”
The picture of the three F- 15s over Auschwitz – a demonstration of Israel’s might and independence – can be found in hundreds of IDF offices these days.
Most of the pictures were given out personally by Maj.- Gen. (res.) Elazar Shkedy, the former IAF commander who stepped down in 2008. Shkedy wrote on all of them: “To remember. Not to forget. To rely only on ourselves.”
That message resonates even louder today as Israel faces a daunting dilemma – to allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, or to embark on possibly one of the most difficult military operations in its history and try to bomb its nuclear facilities.
Contrary to some media reports over the past month, the opinions of Eshel and his main contender Maj.-Gen. Yohanan Locker on Iran were irrelevant in the debate over who should be appointed the next IAF commander. Whether they view Iran as an existential threat or not is not something that played a role in deciding who would be tapped for the job.
What is important, though, is what Eshel thinks about the viability of such a strike and whether it can succeed. One former IAF commander recently recalled the internal military and political debates ahead of Israel’s 1981 bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor.
“The commander of the IAF is key in this case,” the former officer recalled. “The IAF chief needs to believe it can be done, then he needs to convince the chief of staff and then the two of them need to go to the defense minister and prime minister and convince them as well.”
While this might have been the situation in the late 1970s, the current debate over Iran has been going on for years and is well documented. The consensus within the Israeli defense establishment is that the IDF has the ability to knock out Iran’s key facilities, and as a result, set back the program by a number of years.
Nevertheless, without Eshel saying it is possible, it is difficult to imagine how such a strike could be carried out. This does not mean that Eshel needs to believe it is the right thing to do. Just that it can be done.
If, for example, Eshel did not believe such a strike is possible, it is difficult to imagine Defense Minister Ehud Barak agreeing to his appointment. On the other hand, Eshel’s assessment of the extent of damage a strike against Iran could cause will also play a critical role when the government convenes to debate a strike against Iran in the future. It will need to decide if the risk is worth the gain.
Eshel will be taking over an air force that is believed to be preparing for a strike against Iran, and is believed to be ready for the wide variety of challenges it could face in the coming years.
Nevertheless, Eshel will be taking over the IAF at a time when Israel’s enemies are doing everything they can to obtain capabilities aimed at undermining Israel’s aerial superiority and qualitative military edge in the region.
Syria has invested billions of dollars in recent years in purchasing the most advanced Russian surface-to-air missile systems, and the IAF currently operates under the assumption that some of these systems have already been transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip have also obtained sophisticated shoulder-to-air missile systems and the IAF also believes that in a future conflict it will not be able to rely on GPS-guided munitions, since Israel’s enemies will likely have the ability to jam them.
Eshel’s term as IAF commander will be marked by the way Israel deals with Iran, but his challenges will not end in Tehran.
The Middle East is in the throes of a historic upheaval and from April, Eshel will, once again, be Israel’s lead pilot.