Israel Under CENTCOM: Why Does It Matter?
In another dividend of the recent normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab states, the US Defense Department announced that it would include Israel in its Central Command, or CENTCOM.
The Pentagon announced the change in a statement on Friday, though reportedly there has been talk of moving Israel from the European Command to CENTCOM for years, and even more talk about it in recent weeks.
In its announcement, the Pentagon called the move a “sign of the changing political environment in the Middle East.”
CENTCOM, one of 11 US Defense Department unified combatant commands, is responsible for the command and control of all US military forces in the Middle East, including Egypt, as well as Central Asia and parts of South Asia.
At the time of CENTCOM’s founding in 1983, most countries within its area of responsibility did not recognize Israel. Because it would have been impossible to hold military exercises and actual operations jointly between the Jewish state and most other CENTCOM countries, Israel was assigned to the US European Command, which is headquartered in Germany.
Now, in light of Israel’s relations with the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, its 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, and the recent normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the situation is quite different.
“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 Defense Department said in a statement. “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 chief “shared threat” referenced in the statement is Iran, which has clashed increasingly with the outgoing Trump Administration since President Donald Trump in 2018 withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal struck between Tehran and P5+1 countries – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.
What does CENTCOM do and why is the inclusion of Israel in its area of responsibility important?
When it was established, CENTCOM took over for the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, which had been formed in 1979 as a mobile force that could be dropped into conflict regions outside of regularly required US deployments to Europe and South Korea. The need for a force dedicated to the Middle East, specifically the oil-rich Gulf region, became clear in the early 1970s, which saw conflicts that led to high oil prices and rationing in the United States.
The founding of CENTCOM came on the heels of the US Embassy hostage crisis in Iran and at the start of the Iran-Iraq war. Its main headquarters is located, unusually, outside the region, at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. The command now also has a forward headquarters, at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The US has bases in the region in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, as well as some 2,500 troops in Iraq and about an equal number in Afghanistan.
The command priorities of CENTCOM, which are listed on its website, include: deterring Iran; a negotiated resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan; maintaining the defeat-ISIS campaign in Syria and Iraq; countering the threat of unmanned aerial vehicles used to transport contraband, chemical, or other explosive/weaponized payloads; and limiting the weaponization of internally displaced persons and refugees. The command has been involved in many regional operations from the 1990s until today, such as Desert Storm, Provide Comfort, Southern Watch, Northern Watch, Vigilant Warrior, Vigilant Sentinel, Desert Strike, Desert Thunder (I and II), and Desert Fox, Restore Hope in Somalia, Desert Focus, Enduring Freedom to expel the Taliban government in Afghanistan, Iraqi Freedom and Inherent Resolve.
Pro-Israel groups have for years called on the Pentagon to include Israel in CENTCOM in order to cooperate in the fight against Iran, reported The Wall Street Journal, which was the first to report the Pentagon’s decision last week. The move could cement Israel’s relationship with the Arab countries that have recently normalized relations, and it will encourage even more cooperation between Israel and the Gulf states in fighting against the threats they see from Iran, according to reports.
The Biden Administration, which will inherit the change this week when it takes over, has not commented on the announcement.
It will not be the first time that CENTCOM has worked with Israel. CENTCOM has conducted several Enduring Lightning joint drills with Israel using F-35s, including three such drills in 2020.
The inclusion of Israel under CENTCOM does raise a potential problem: What would happen if relations between Jerusalem and the Arab states in the region were to deteriorate or fail completely? It should also be noted that the most influential Gulf Arab state, Saudi Arabia, has yet to normalize relations with the Jewish state.
Reasons for a potential souring in the burgeoning relations between Israel and the Arab countries in the region include the ongoing unrest between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel’s alleged continuing attacks in Syria and a concern on the part of the Arab nations that the US military would share intelligence with Israel about them.
A bill introduced last month by seven Republican senators, titled the Israel CENTCOM Reclassification Act, would have required the Defense Department to study transferring Israel from EUCOM to CENTCOM. The bill was sent to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for consideration on Dec. 8, 2020.
Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz praised the decision to move Israel to CENTCOM.
“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.”