General Mouawad Tannous, a former Lebanese military intelligence officer and former defence attache with the Lebanese embassy in Washington DC, said he thought the release of the photo was part of a game of psychological warfare.
“This is Israel playing a psychological side of the war,” he told The Independent.
“Israel is flaunting its power, and showing to all its high military superiority.”
Israeli military planes frequently enter Lebanese airspace in order to carry out bombings of Hezbollah and Iranian targets in neighbouring Syria.
Last month, the Lebanese government filed a new complaint with the United Nations Security Council over Israel's illegal use of its airspace. The two countries have technically been at war since Israel’s creation in 1948.
The photo was first shown by Israel Air Force commander Major General Amikam Norkin at an international security conference in Herzliva last week.
According to Gen Tannous, Maj Gen Norkin has “taken heat for revealing the F-35 in such a clear photo, showing four radars, with two reflectors on each side” – meaning it was not flying in stealth mode.
It is not clear when the photograph was taken. Israel became the first country to procure the US’ Lockheed Martin $125 million (£94m) “next generation” fighter jet in 2016, and has so far received nine of 50 ordered planes.
Israel said the jets became operational in December 2017. At least one of the single-seater planes was used in recent air strikes inside Syria that targeted Iranian military operations after Iranian forces reportedly fired on Israeli soldiers in the occupied Golan Heights.
“We are flying the F-35 all over the Middle East and have already attacked twice on two different fronts,” the Maj Gen told 20 assorted commanders of foreign air forces at the meeting.
“You know that we just won the Eurovision with the song 'Toy.' Well, the F-35 is not a toy,” he said.
The photo’s publication, at a time of soaring tensions between Israel, Iran and the Iranian-allied Lebanese group Hezbollah, has been criticised as hubristic.
Around 100 Israeli airstrikes in Syrian territory in the last few years have aimed to prevent weapons smuggling to Lebanon's Hezbollah, which also fights alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops in the complex Syrian war.
Hezbollah, like Iran, is committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.
As President Assad has slowly regained control of the country, tensions between Iran and Israel have ratcheted up, with Israeli officials warning they will not accept a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria.
The Golan Heights confrontation earlier this month – in which at least 23 Iranian nationals died – marked the most significant Israeli operation inside Syria to date, as well as the most severe military skirmish between the two enemies ever
While some Israeli newspapers and other media outlets picked up on the picture of the F-35 in action – before even the US military has used it – as a show of military strength, columnist Amos Harel of left-leaning newspaper Haaretz was critical of the Israel Air Force’s handling of the incident.
“There is certainly a deterrent value to the sight of the plane above Beirut,” he wrote on Monday.
“But it still comes off like inordinate swagger, and perhaps also an attempt to rehabilitate the IAF’s image following the downing of an F-16 during the previous escalation of hostilities with Iran and Syria, in February.”
According to manufacturers Lockheed Martin the F-35 Lightning II is a versatile fighter with a very low radar signature, allowing it to avoid advanced missile defence systems, engage enemy aircraft before they see it and operate undetected in enemy territory.
It also shares unprecedented, instantaneous amounts of data with operational commanders on the ground, allowing pilots to anticipate attacks and jam enemy radars.
However, the F-35 development programme – scheduled to run until 2070 - has been strongly criticised for spiralling costs and concerns over the jets’ maintenance diagnostic systems and landing gears.
Turkey is supposed to get its first delivery of an expected 100 F-35s later this year, but both the US senate and Israeli officials are seeking to freeze the sale.
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