Head Of Israel's Air Force States "We Prevented Going To War" In Must Read Interview

The recently retired head of the IAF talks Syria, Russia, Iran, and even the F-35 in an unprecedentedly frank exchange. 

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Just days ago, Major General Amir Eshel retired after over 40 years of service. During the last five years of his career he was the commander of the vaunted Israeli Air Force. During his tenure in that position, Eshel prepared for war with Iran, fought enemies within Israel's own borders, and dealt with a massive shift in power in the region as Russia embedded itself deeply into the Syrian civil war. Now he is talking about all this and more in an amazingly open manner. 

The piece by Haaretz reporter Amos Harel, which can and should be read in full here, gives us an unprecedented insight into the nexus between Israel's foreign policy goals and the application of hard military capabilities that the IAF provides. Since its founding, the IAF has been known for its ingenuity as much as its combat prowess. That history has been built by introspective and creative commanders like Eshel.

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General Eshel inspects his airmen with a Shavit in the background. 

One of the most successful series of operations the IAF has spearheaded in the last five years has been the relatively quiet but constant interdiction of high-end weapons funneled through Syria to Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Here's the remarkable exchange:

Most of the information about the attacks draws on reports in the international media. What is the Israeli public not understanding about this story?

“I think the public understands well. The prime minister and the defense minister made declarations to the effect that there are things that Israel will not allow to happen. They made the declaration with the intention of carrying it out. There’s a wide range of actions that can be taken and there have been a great many successes. If we hadn’t succeeded, the potential threats would be far more significant today.”

Did the air force adversely affect Hezbollah’s military capabilities?

“Of things that Hezbollah wanted to have in its possession, a large part was unrealized. I will give you numbers, ballpark figures. Israel is coping with terrorism far from its borders, too. If you take the activity against terrorism in its newer sense – the campaign against the conveyance of strategic means of combat – it’s not that Israel didn’t do similar things in the past. It did, but the situation in the Middle East has changed. Until 2012, if you go back 10 years, there were very few preemptive operations, far from the border, by the air force. You can count them on fewer than the fingers of one hand. And there were operations, I don’t have to tell you, by the Mossad."

"Since 2012, I am talking about many dozens of operations. Let’s say that the number is close to three figures, in the northern sector and in other sectors. An operation can be something solitary, small and point-specific, or it can be an intensive week in which a great many items are involved. Happily, it occurs under the radar. You can view it as a direct accomplishment, given the equipment that’s destroyed. But something else also happened, which I find very significant: We succeeded in not plunging Israel into wars.”

Could that have happened?

“Easily. A mistake could have many components: undesirable friction with enemies, with great powers, or all of it together. The smart thing is to be effective, to achieve what’s required, but below the bar at which we escalate into war. And in the Middle East, it’s very easy to escalate into war. I think this is a great achievement. It’s easy enough to be a bull in a china shop. We were able to act rightly and not get into a war. In some cases the force we used was like a hammer, and in some cases it was just a small ‘click,’ and that’s enough. And if you factor in the excellent intelligence – really extraordinary intelligence – and the determination of the decision makers, that means that when Israel has vested interests, it acts despite the risks. I think that in the eyes of our enemies, as far as I understand it, this is a language that’s understood here and also understood far from the Middle East.”

Is it understood in Moscow, too?

“Yes. There’s something else here, which we will be able to gauge only in hindsight, but in my view, our actions reduced the possibility of war. We didn’t eliminate it, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be some miscalculation tomorrow – anything is possible. But when someone feels that you know more about them than they would have expected, and when you’re determined to act, even when it looks impossible, and you act sharply and precisely, that doesn’t generate a desire for wars."

“I’m the last person who wants to convey a message here that the wars in the Middle East are done with. I will say it very soberly. I am not deluding myself, because things can lurch out of control here. But every action like that – and they know what’s going on – is a message that is understood very well: ‘It’s not worth it, not now.’ That’s a positive result of these operations, even if it’s not their central aim.”

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F-35I and F-16I over Israel. 

Eshel was then asked about how Israel has dealt with Russia's arrival in Syria and its military operations in the region since. 

“We realized that a new and very significant player had entered the arena... A potential for friction, one that could cause dangerous results, had been created. Certainly we have nothing against them, but we have interests and they have interests, and they converge in the Syrian airspace. How do you reduce the possibility of unintended mutual harm? The strategic consequences could be serious. To date, it [the mechanism that was worked out] has stood the test well.”

In November 2015, Turkish planes downed a Russian warplane on the Syria-Turkey border, sparking a serious crisis between Moscow and Istanbul. Israel sought to prevent, almost at any price, a similar clash with the Russians.

“There’s one thing you have to understand: In the air, things can happen within a second, with all due respect to a directive by Putin or by the prime minister,” Eshel explains. “In the end, the question is: How do we foster a situation in which a lieutenant here, or his counterpart on the Russian side, doesn’t make that mistake. The lieutenant has to decide here and now, and it’s possible that within a second he will have made a mistake, and we’ve gone and entangled Israel. That’s something we cannot allow ourselves. In the technical sense, we reduce the possibility that this will happen. We know how to communicate. We do not coordinate our activity with the Russians in advance. It’s not that we tell them what we are going to do [in Syria].”

How does it work, if you don’t coordinate with them?

“There’s something technical here, and there are leaders’ directives, and trust. We don’t intend to harm the Russians, and we do everything to avoid harming them. They understand why we are taking action. They don’t agree or give us authorization, but I think they understand what Israel is doing. It is fighting terrorism, preventing the delivery of means of combat.”

Agreement isn’t part of the story?

“It’s not a matter of agreement. Sovereign states need to respect other states, and in this case we are both involved with the same geographical slot. We have no beef with the Russians. We do have a beef with deliveries of arms that endanger our security.”

t’s been almost two years. Have Russian planes or defense systems locked on to Israeli planes? Were there situations of near-confrontation?

“Locking on is not a situation of almost being hit. There have been no situations of near-clash, because we are conducting ourselves correctly. When I look now at the scope of Russian activity during two years, at how many times they have violated Israeli sovereignty, my point of departure is that the majority were by mistake, it’s nothing. There were situations in which we contacted them in real time and said that there had been a mistake [of the Russians entering Israeli airspace], and they immediately responded and corrected. That’s alright. We have not seen provocations.”

Still, when a pilotless plane – apparently Russian – appears suddenly in Israel’s skies, what happens?

“Everything tenses up, certainly. We do what needs to be done. It’s all at top speed, but we behave responsibly. I think the Russians know that we are not Turkey.”

The interview goes onto talk about Iran and military operations in Gaza, as well as the changing nature of Israel's military relationship with Arab countries. He even discusses the F-35I and what it brings to the IAF. Once again, you can read the rest of the piece here

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com