Before taking off for the UN General Assembly in New York on Sept. 29, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu informed Gen. Amir Eshel, 56, the Air Force Commander, that he had been chosen to be the next Director of the Mossad, Israel’s central intelligence service.
Eshel will take up the post at the end of this year, succeeding Tamir Pardo who ends a five-year term.
In the last two or so years, Pardo has kept some distance from the prime minister, convinced that Netanyahu went over the top on the Iranian nuclear issue, which he doesn’t believe poses an existential threat to Israel.
Earlier this year, Pardo confided to close associates that in his view the Palestinian problem poses a greater danger than Iran, a proposition to which Netanyahu does not subscribe.
In June, Pardo appointed as his deputy the head of “Caesaria”, the Mossad’s central operations arm.
He is identified only as “A.”
This highly sensitive branch is responsible for secreting agents into enemy countries and running them on special missions, including assassinations and sabotage, which are carried out in conjunction with the “Kidon” and other units.
The deputy head also steps in as acting director when necessary, as well as heading the operations administration which manages all the organization’s operational branches.
Israel’s next spy chiefs are in their fifties from similar backgrounds
It is not known whether Pardo had any say in the choice of his successor. By promoting “A” to the number two position in the Mossad, he was indicating his support for the continuation of the particular kinds of clandestine operations carried out on his watch.
Eshel was tagged for the top Mossad post just days after the prime minister approved the nomination of Rony Alsheikh, deputy director of the Mossad’s sister agency, the Shin Bet internal security service, as police commissioner.
Alsheikh is reputed to be one of those spy agencies’ top experts on Arab affairs, as well as a prominent figure in the shadow world of Israeli covert intelligence and counterterrorism technology.
If Pardo’s forecast of the Palestinian Authority’s collapse comes to be and sparks fresh waves of Palestinian terror, abetted by Israeli Arab extremists, then Alsheikh’s appointment was timely indeed.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources point out the new appointees to Israel’s undercover agencies are all in their mid-to-late 50s and from similar backgrounds.
Eshel and Alsheikh are grouped under this heading, as is the head of the military intelligence branch (AMAN) Gen. Hertzi Levy, who was appointed only a year ago.
Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen is also due to retire in 2016.
Netanyahu in two minds about recent crop of army chiefs
Judging from the new appointments, Netanyahu has full trust in the abilities of the IDF’s second-tier generals and intelligence officers, while privately admitting dissatisfaction with the latest crop of IDF chiefs of staff.
Five years ago, a media-orchestrated hate campaign defeated his effort to appoint Gen. Yoav Galant, then OC Southern Command, as chief of staff. Short of a candidate, he recalled Gen. Benny Gantz who had meanwhile shed his uniform to fill the top post.
The prime minister was again outmaneuvered in 2015 when his choice of Gen. Yair Golan, then OC Northern Command, for the top IDF slot was voted down. He settled for promoting the Deputy Chief of Staff Gen. Gady Eizenkot, who is the current chief of staff. Major Golan is his deputy and in line to succeed him when the time comes.
Netanyahu is not the first Israeli prime minister with reservations about the top commander of the Israeli Armed Forces. Nine years ago, his predecessor Ehud Olmert had to live with Chief of Staff Dan Halutz’s grave shortcomings which came disastrously to the fore in the 2006 war against the Hizballah.
New intelligence chiefs are handpicked by the PM
Netanyahu has handpicked his Mossad appointee in whom he has full trust.
Gen. Eshel, the 18th commander of the Israeli Air Force, joined the IDF in 1977, volunteered for the Air Force’s pilot training course and was certified as a combat jet pilot in 1979.
For two years, he was an instructor in the Air Force’s flight school and its operational training course. After training on F-16 Eagle warplanes, he was appointed head of the corps’ training branch and then, deputy commander of the Negev-based F-16 squadron.
His next career moves landed him at the head of the Air Force operations branch; then, from 1991 to 1993, commander of Squadron 110 of F-16C Barak fighters.at the Ramat David base.
From 1993 to 1995, Eshel was commander of Squadron 201 of F-4 Phantoms at the Tel Nof base. After his promotion to colonel, he headed Air Force operations from 1997 to 1999.
After some years as commander of the Rimon and Tel Nof air bases, he was appointed Commander of the Air Force in May 2012, successor to Gen. Ido Nehushtan.
Bringing an ace airman down to earth amid Syrian turbulence
As Mossad Director, Air Force Gen. Eshel must come down to earth, in a manner of speaking. But he seems to be well prepared.
In June 2013, he made some remarks about Syria that turned out in retrospect to be fairly apt. They also indicated that he had kept a close watch on the Syrian civil war, then in its second year, and its potential relevance to Israel. What he envisaged then was that Israel might have to face a sudden outbreak of war in some form or other: “We shouldn’t fool ourselves,” he said at the time. “We will need to win that war in a few days. We can win, but we will have to call up massive firepower.”
The future Mossad chief went on to say: “We are in a war scenario that is different from that of the (1973) Yom Kippur War. Different areas, different threats, a different timeframe, everything is different and that requires completely different capabilities that translate into a significant amount of firepower by the Air Force, because the home front will be hit – however much we strive to defend it, it will be hit,” he said.
“If Syria collapses tomorrow,” Eshel said, “we will be caught up in that turmoil, because the vast amount of weapons there could be looted by various terrorist organizations. That doesn’t mean that we must take action, but that we must be ready to act quickly and can’t be sure there’ll enough time to prepare.”
After a solid grounding, Amir Eshel takes over Israel’s key intelligence service amid turmoil in neighboring Syria that is fraught with peril at every turn, especially now that Moscow and Tehran have taken the lead in determining its fate.