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Pentagon moves Israel into Central Command to boost cooperation with Arab states

Change approved during Trump’s final days shifts Israel out of US military’s European Command sphere, will allow for greater regional collaboration against Iran

Israeli paratroopers and US soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment take part in training during the joint Israeli-US military Juniper Cobra exercise at the Tzeelim urban warfare training center in southern Israel on March 12, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Illustrative: Israeli paratroopers and US soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment take part in training during the joint Israeli-US military Juniper Cobra exercise at the Tzeelim urban warfare training center in southern Israel, March 12, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)

With a nod to Israel’s increasingly normalized relations with the Arab world, the Pentagon is reorganizing its global command structure to include the Jewish state in the military sphere managed by US Central Command, which includes other Middle East countries.

The move will allow for greater collaboration against Iran, the primary regional foe of Israel, the US and some Arab countries.

Israel for decades had been in the sphere of European Command because of its generally hostile relations with many Arab countries, a condition that was viewed as making it difficult for Central Command (CENTCOM) to do business with both Israel and the Arab world.

Central Command’s area of responsibility stretches across the Middle East to Central Asia, including the Persian Gulf region as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

US President Donald Trump ordered the shift earlier this week following lobbying from several pro-Israel groups in Washington, and the Pentagon made the official announcement on Friday.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz lauded the move, indicating it was the result of his ministry’s discussions with the Pentagon.

“Glad that following weeks of dialogue between our defense establishments, including with former defense secretary, Dr. Mark Esper, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, the Pentagon has moved military overview of Israel to Central Command, which includes other countries in the Middle East,” Gantz said in a statement.

“This shift will further boost cooperation between the IDF and the US armed forces in confronting regional challenges, along with other friends with whom we share interests,” he said.

Though partially a symbolic move, including Israel in CENTCOM is expected to improve the direct communications between the Israel Defense Forces and American troops in the region and, through the US, other militaries in the region. The move does not portend changes in the basing of US forces in the Middle East or Europe.

The previous arrangement allowed Israel to work closely with European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in European Command but limited interaction between the Israeli military and Arab armies in Central Command.

“Israel is a leading strategic partner for the United States, and this will open up additional opportunities for cooperation with our US Central Command partners while maintaining strong cooperation between Israel and our European allies,” the Pentagon said. “We structure boundaries to best mitigate risk and protect US interests and partners.”

“Now, [Central Command chief] Gen. Frank McKenzie can go to Saudi Arabia, Emirates and Israel and visit everyone in his newly enlarged parish,” a US official told the Wall Street Journal, which broke the story.

Even before the change, McKenzie had been able to visit Israel and did so in November 2019, as did his predecessor Gen. Joseph Votel, who visited in April of that year. That visit by Votel was the first trip to Israel by a head of CENTCOM.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, center front, the top US commander for the Middle East, walks as he visits a military outpost in Syria, on January 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Lolita Baldor)

The Pentagon said Israel’s US-brokered normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, called the Abraham Accords, were a factor in the decision. Following the signing of the accords in September, Israel reached additional normalization deals with Sudan and Morocco, also with US mediation.

“The easing of tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors subsequent to the Abraham Accords has provided a strategic opportunity for the United States to align key partners against shared threats in the Middle East,” the Pentagon said.

That was a reference to Iran, which the US, Israel and some Arab countries including leading power Saudi Arabia view as the leading security threat in the region.

The head of one of the pro-Israel group who has lobbied for moving Israel to CENTCOM’s purview, the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, said the reorganization would indeed boost cooperation among the countries in the region.

“For several months, JINSA has argued that assigning Israel to CENTCOM’s [area of operation] represents a logical next step following the breakthrough Abraham Accords. It will strengthen strategic planning, defense cooperation, and deterrence against Iran by America and its regional allies,” said Michael Makovsky, president and CEO of JINSA.

The change in command structure could complicate Central Command cooperation with Iranian allies like Iraq, where the US retains 2,500 troops.

One retired general who spoke to The Wall Street Journal applauded the move but cautioned that it would add to the burden of Central Command, which already has responsibility over US military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Trump made the decision in the waning days of his presidency, so the Biden administration will be left to implement it. The move was the latest in a series of measures by the now twice-impeached Republican president aimed at shaping his successor’s policy on Iran.

The Trump administration took a confrontational approach to Tehran, including by pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal, imposing crippling sanctions on Iran and assassinating its general Qassem Soleimani last year.

Biden is expected to take a more conciliatory approach and has said that if Tehran returns to the terms of the nuclear agreement, he too would rejoin, removing the crushing economic sanctions that have wreaked havoc on the Iranian economy over the past two years.

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