New Israeli Air Force chief inaugurated

Updated: 2012-05-11 14:13


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JERUSALEM - A new Israel Air Force (IAF) chief took charge on Thursday, against a sharp debate by the country's leaders on if, when and how it might have to unleash it' s air power against Iran's nuclear facilities.

At a ceremony held at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Maj.- Gen Amir Eshel, 53, took over from Maj.-Gen Ido Nehushtan, who completed a four-year term, and 37 years on the flight line.

"The IAF operates every day, every minute, 365 days a year, across Israel and around the world guarding the State of Israel," Nehushtan said at the ceremony, attended by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff, Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, and other senior officials.

"We face significant challenges, but are ready for any future task," Eshel said, according to an army statement.

Both Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have more than once hinted that Israel is geared up for a military strike if the P5+1 talks fail to convince Teheran to halt it's nuclear fuel enrichment.

Israel and Western countries believe that Iran is clandestinely trying to build a nuclear weapon. Iran has vehemently denied the accusations and insists its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes, such as medical research and power generation.

During the air force vetting process, Netanyahu and Barak sought to assess the candidates opinions as to the viability of an air strike against targets believed connected to the program, according to a Yediot Aharonot daily.

Eshel has so far declined to publicly comment on a possible strike on Iran's uranium enrichment plants.

"(The decision to strike) is up to the government and the military would provide it with a 'tool box' of options," Eshel said in a briefing to foreign correspondents and diplomats in Jerusalem late last year, adding, "We have the ability to hit any adversary very, very hard."

"The IAF has an immediate, significant and strategic value," Gantz said at Thursday's event, and has dismissed reports that he was pressured to appoint Netanyahu's military secretary and confidante, Maj.-Gen. Yohanan Locker to Eshel's post.

Locker is now awaiting nomination as the next military attache to Washington.

A former IAF deputy commander, Eshel most recently headed the military's planning directorate. In the past he served as commander of an F-4 Phantom fighter jet squadron, two major air bases, and as head of the IAF's air division.