Top US general in the Middle East visits Israel to meet with IDF
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Top US general in the Middle East visits Israel to meet with IDF

In second-ever visit by the head of the US Central Command, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie lands amid ongoing tensions over American withdrawal from the region

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Gen. Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, speaks next to a picture of the operation targeting Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during a press briefing October 30, 2019 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)
Gen. Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, speaks next to a picture of the operation targeting Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during a press briefing October 30, 2019 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

The commander of American military forces in the Middle East arrived in Israel on Saturday for meetings with the Israel Defense Forces’ top brass, amid ongoing turmoil in the region after the US withdrew many of its forces from northern Syria last month.

Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr. touched down on Saturday for his first visit in Israel since becoming head of US military’s Central Command, or CENTCOM, in March.

The US refused to disclose McKenzie’s itinerary in Israel.

McKenzie’s trip was the second-ever visit by a commander of US CENTCOM to the Jewish state.

Though Israel is in the Middle East, it does not often work directly with CENTCOM, and instead cooperates with the US military’s European Command, or EUCOM. This is widely seen as an attempt by the US military to avoid conflict with other countries in the Middle East whose populations generally have a negative opinion of Israel.

US Army General Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command, testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 27, 2018. (AFP /Saul Loeb)

McKenzie’s predecessor, Gen. Joseph Votel, was the first US CENTCOM commander to travel to Israel, visiting last April with little fanfare.

Military ties between the US and Israel have been somewhat strained in recent months, as the US has begun withdrawing from the region, leaving Israel alone to confront an increasingly aggressive and emboldened Iran.

Though Israeli officials have refrained from specifically criticizing US President Donald Trump for the withdrawal, they have more obliquely expressed concerns about the trend.

“Iran’s brazenness in the region is increasing and even getting stronger in light of the absence of a response,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last month.

In June, Trump called off a retaliatory strike after Iran downed an American drone that Tehran said entered its airspace. The US, which denied the drone entered Iranian skies, was later reported to have launched a limited cyberattack on Iran.

Last month, around half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production capacity was knocked offline due to an attack claimed by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. There was no response to that attack, which the US, Israel and others also blamed on Iran.

The White House’s decision last month to pull troops out of northern Syria and abandon Kurdish allies there has also been seen as a sign of Trump’s general lack of willingness to engage militarily in the region.

Trump ran on a campaign of “America First” isolationism and has sought to end US military operations abroad to a large degree, announcing troop pullouts from Afghanistan and Syria.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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