How does Israel cope with the civil war in Syria, the threat of Iran’s nuclear capability, Russia’s entry into the neighborhood, and other dangers? Guests at the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) gala on Oct. 23 at the New York Hilton got a unique perspective on Israel’s response to the threats from the Arab Spring.
Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, who retired this year as head of the Israel Air Force, told the 1,200 dinner guests that traditionally the air force is a big stick for big wars. But a big stick no longer works in the Middle East where the situation is so fragile. “You also need to develop the ability to surgically thread the needle, to become a scalpel as opposed to a bull in a china shop. A scalpel that acts quietly, surgically, without deteriorating into a state of war that nobody wants.”
In the five years Eshel commanded the Israel Air Force he transformed the country’s military might so that it now dominates the skies in the region. He accomplished that with the acquisition from the U.S. of nine new F-35 Adir stealth fighter jets.
According to a report by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, at Bar-Ilan University, one of the three top think tanks in the Middle East, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft is an intelligence gathering machine in a league of its own. It is able to deploy a range of sensors to gather information on events on the ground automatically and then share it with other aircraft and ground control stations.
He revealed that in recent years his air force has conducted many quiet, under-the-radar surgical strikes all over the Middle East “and that is what has kept the chaos all around us from spilling over.” That’s the power of the Adir, Hebrew for “mighty.”
“When you take off in this plane from Nevatim Air Force Base you can’t believe it,” Eshel enthused. “At 5,000 feet the whole Middle East is there for you in the cockpit. American pilots who fly with us haven’t seen anything like it because they fly over Arizona or Florida. Here they suddenly see the entire Middle East as a combat zone—the threats, the different players, at both close range and long range. This expansion of our military and intelligence capabilities means that Israel can now, if the situation warrants, act preemptively in unprecedented ways.”
Liz Claman, an anchor at Fox Business Network, spoke about something unusual that has happened in Israel. “For the first time, the U.S. flag was raised at the first American military base in Israel.” The American missile facility was established at Bislach Air Base in the Negev to intercept rocket and missile threats.
Eshel said Israel has the only multi-tier anti-missile defense system in the world, able to protect itself from short-range mortar shells to interceptions from outer space. This advanced weaponry and technology includes the Iron Dome, the Arrow, and David’s Sling. “We have the capability to protect ourselves from our enemies,” he said.
Among the IDF guests at the dinner were Capt. N, one of the IAF’s few women combat navigators; Maj. G, who pilots one of the F-35 “flying supercomputers;” Shira, a paramedic who’s been treating wounded Syrian refugees; and Navy Sgt. Matan, a “lone soldier,” or one who immigrates to Israel with no immediate family in order to enlist in the IDF, originally from Westchester.
In a video, Major “G” demonstrated how fast the F-35 can take off. He wore a helmet developed by Israel which enables the pilot to see at a great distance, even in the dark of night.
Maj. Gen. (Res.) Meir Klifi-Amir, FIDF national director, called on the dinner guests to support the educational and recreational programs of the soldiers. “While their job is to look after Israel, our job is to look after them,” he proclaimed.
Among the many who responded, Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam allocated $7 million, FIDF national vice president Marc Perlman pledged $1 million, and the Iranian American Jewish Federation gave $600,000. By night’s end, the FIDF tallied a total of $35 million.
In the audience were Sagy Aseraf, executive vice president of Israel Discount Bank of New York; Andrew H. Gross, director of political affairs at the Israel Consulate in New York and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
It was also most appropriate to see the diminutive (4’5”), 89-year-old sexual therapist Ruth Westheimer at this event. She proudly showed her latest book, “Roller Coaster Grandma: The Amazing Story of Dr. Ruth.” Her parents sent her from her native Germany to Switzerland during the war. After the Holocaust, in which her parents perished, she made her way to Palestine where she trained as a sniper in the Haganah during Israel’s war of independence.