Last updated: 5 February, 2012

Israel names air force head amid Iran tension

Israel on Sunday named 52-year-old former fighter pilot Amir Eshel as the next head of its air force, as speculation grows about an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

A military statement said Major General Eshel was selected by the armed forces chief, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, and that Defence Minister Ehud Barak approved the appointment.

He replaces Ido Nehushtan, who ends his four-year term in May.

Though commentators have cautioned against interpreting the appointment as an indication of Israel’s intentions towards Iran, the key post is being filled at a time of increasing regional tensions.

Israel’s chief of military intelligence said on Thursday that Iran has enriched enough uranium to build four nuclear devices and its strategic affairs minister warned that no Iranian nuclear facility was immune to attack.

Israel and much of the international community fears that Iran nuclear programme mask a weapons drive, a charge denied by Tehran.

The Washington Post last week reported that US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta believes there is a “strong possibility” that Israel will strike Iran’s nuclear installations this spring.

The Jewish state is widely believed to have the Middle East’s only, albeit undeclared, nuclear arsenal, which international experts believe contains between 100 and 300 nuclear warheads.

It has never confirmed or denied such reports.

In 2007, Israeli aircraft struck an alleged nuclear facility in Syria, although it never officially confirmed the raid.

Like Nehushtan before him, Eshel is currently head of the military’s planning and policy directorate.

He commanded Phantom and F-16 squadrons and fighter groups, ran air bases and served as air force chief of operations in the 1990s, according to Haaretz newspaper.

The son of Holocaust survivors, in 2003 Eshel led a formation of three Israel air force jets in a historic flight over Auschwitz death camp in Poland.