Since last summer, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, 53, head of the IDF General Staff's Planning Division, has been the consensual choice as Israel's next Air Force commander. The claim that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu opposed the appointment because Eshel was said to be against striking Iran's nuclear program was a political swipe at the prime minister rather than based in fact.
The incoming commander, who replaces Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan in May when the latter's tour of duty ends, has never been asked about his politics or made known his position on a military operation against a nuclear Iran.
After training as a fighter pilot, he graduated through combat missions and climbed the ranks to his present post. Eshel holds a B.A. from Auburn University in Alabama and a Masters in Political Science from Haifa University's National Security College.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources glean from the little known about Gen. Eshel's private opinions that he appears to be close to Moshe Yaalon, the Deputy Prime Minister for Strategic Affairs – who is no dove.
On Feb. 2, Ya’alon said: “Any structure built by man can be destroyed by man. All of Iran's [nuclear] facilities can be destroyed. I speak from experience as a former IDF chief of staff.”
According to Yaalon, "The West has the ability to strike, but so long as Iran isn’t convinced of its resolve to follow through, they will continue with their manipulations.”
Privately, the deputy prime minister says that he would rather the United States not Israel be the one to hit Iran. But if Washington won’t do it, Israel will have no other choice.
In a war with Iran, Gen. Gantz needs an air combat expert at his side
The changing of the guard at the IDF's top command at a time that war clouds hover overhead from Iran and/or its allies, Syria, Hizballah and Hamas, was unusual enough to attract surprised notice in Western military circles.
It only started making sense, our military sources report, in the context of the need to fit the right man for the coming conflict with Iran into the key slot of Deputy Chief of Staff.
Last year, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh was hurriedly drafted in from civilian retirement as a stopgap to stabilize the top IDF command after the turbulence of the scheme drummed up successfully to defeat the appointment of Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant as chief of staff.
Some insiders, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, suspected the IDF Chief of Staff at the time, Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi, of hatching the putsch against the Galant appointment – both out of personal animus and to deprive the government of the hawkish general's support for a preemptive attack on Iran.
The whys and wherefores of the affair have never come fully to light. The State Comptroller is still investigating it.
Gen. Naveh conceded two years to the job of deputy chief of staff before he again sheds his uniform. His strengths are more administrative and logistical than operational. Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz therefore cast his eye on Nehushtan to take over from Naveh because he is better qualified for the coming tasks facing the IDF.
Gen. Nehushtan may jump ahead of Gen. Eisenkott
A professional soldier to his fingertips, he is equipped as Air Force chief with high technological aptitudes. A man of few words, Nehushtan is reputed to be painstaking about the smallest details. His colleagues at home and his fellows in friendly armies say he is very smart and highly intelligent.
In the event of Israel going to war with Iran, both the defense minister and the Chief of Staff are reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources to have settled on Nehushtan as the man Gen. Gantz, who comes from the paratroops and special operations units, should have at his side.
Armored warfare expertise will not be needed in a conflict with Iran, but rather Nehushtan's unparalleled knowledge of warplanes, missiles, nuclear weapons and submarines.
In normal times, the IDF traditionally appoints as deputy chief of staff the officer in line to succeed the top man. Gantz completes his term in early 2014, unless it is extended for another year.
Were it not for a potential armed conflict with Iran, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkott would take up the position assigned to Nehushtan as the presumptive next chief of staff after Gantz. However, Eisenkott, Head of the Operations Directorate at the General Staff and OC Northern Command, is a ground combat officer par excellence. His particular expertise looks like being extraneous in Israel's next war arena.
Therefore, as things stand, the odds on Nehushtan's promotion to the No.2 position in the IDF command are better than Eisenkott's. But after the upsets of last year, no appointment can be considered in the bag until it is finally endorsed.
Top Khamenei aides urge preemptive strike to annihilate Israel
Amid these changes, Minister of Home Front Defense Matan Vilnai suddenly decided to quit and accept the post of Israeli Ambassador to China.
The resignation of the minister in charge of preparing the Israeli home front for potential Iranian, Syrian, Hizballah and Hamas assaults at this time ought to have created a major stir.
However it passed with hardly a murmur, partly because Israel has never allocated serious money or attention to bolstering homeland defense and partly because of Vilnai's marginal impact on the political scene.
All the same, he walked out in the week that two high-placed Iranian security experts close to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei published a strategic analysis calling on Tehran to preemptively strike Israel.
It appeared Sunday, Feb. 5 on the conservative Iranian website Alef, which is owned by Ahmad Tavakkoli, head of the Iranian parliamentary research center and a Khamenei crony.
The paper cited doctrinal canons justifying the killing of all Jews and Israel's annihilation.
The author, the Supreme Leader's strategic adviser Alireza Forghani, offered the opinion that it would take "no more than nine minutes to wipe out Israel."
Iran would be fully justified in preemptively attacking Israel as the source of threats to its own nuclear facilities, he wrote.
Defense Minister Barak is believed to have agreed to relieve Vilnai of the Home Front Defense portfolio in order to replace him with a stronger leadership figure, even if the home front is not fully prepared for an Iranian attack until the new man learns the ropes.
US and Israeli war preparations in full spate
Sunday, Feb. 5, President Barack Obama said in an interview on NBC, “I don’t think that Israel has made a decision on what they need to do [about attacking Iran].”
No sooner had a spoken when three events placed a large question mark over his words:
1. Wave upon wave of US Air Force planes were sighted flying over Sinai east in the direction of the Persian Gulf, presumably to Saudi Arabia.
1. The IDF posed a new condition for candidates wishing to serve on Israel's submarines: To join this elite unit, they must relinquish their foreign citizenship before entering the prolonged training ahead of them as part of their security screening.
The waiver of dual citizenship is already a current proviso for membership of some special combat units and for posts requiring high security clearance.
2. Soldiers serving in the security details guarding the Dimona nuclear reactor were this week ordered to deposit their cell phones at the entrance to the facility when they return from leave. While on duty (16 consecutive days on and five days off) they are barred from using any electronic communications device, such as an iPad.
3. Foreign embassies in Israel have drafted contingency plans for evacuating their citizens in the event Israel comes under missile attack.
In readiness for possible fallout in case of an Israeli strike on Iran, foreign diplomats stationed in Israel have put in requests with the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem to supply them and their families with gas masks.