Top US General Visits Israel Following Administration Shift, Regional Realignment
It is the first meeting between US CENTCOM commander and Israeli officials since the US transferred Israel to the Middle Eastern alignment enabled by the Abraham Accords
The commander of the United States Central Command, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, arrived in Israel on Thursday for a two-day visit. It is the first trip by a senior American official to Israel since President Joe Biden’s inauguration last week, and McKenzie’s first meeting with his Israeli counterparts since the Jewish state was transferred to CENTCOM from Washington’s European Command.
In the final days of President Donald Trump’s term, the US Defense Department announced a reshuffle of its command structure, moving Israel from EUCOM to its Middle Eastern alignment, which includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Iraq, among others.
“The easing of tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors subsequent to the Abraham Accords has provided a strategic opportunity for the US to align key partners against shared threats in the Middle East,” according to a Pentagon statement, appearing to allude to Iran.
Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz praised the decision, saying he was “glad that following weeks of dialogue between our defense establishments, the Pentagon has moved military overview of Israel to Central Command.”
“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 added.
Eldad Shavit, a retired colonel and senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, called the move “a substantial act, both symbolically and practically.”
“This serves Israel because it underscores the achievements of the normalization agreements with regional Arab states,” he told The Media Line. “The fact that the US managed to align Jerusalem with countries that rejected it only several years ago, that’s significant.”
While Shavit says Israel “won’t be directly involved in CENTCOM operations, coordination between it and Gulf nations will be made much easier.”
Israel’s inclusion in CENTCOM and its implications are historic,” he said. “This is a natural, long overdue change, which strengthens Israeli cooperation with Gulf states, and makes it easier on US operations as well, transferring forces and information
McKenzie was scheduled during his two-day visit to meet with Israel’s top military commanders, including military Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, who only two days earlier delivered a startlingly direct message to the new White House administration.
In prepared remarks given at the Institute for National Security Studies Conference held online on Tuesday, Kochavi warned that a return by President Biden to anything resembling the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal, would be “a wrong move, both operationally and strategically, and should not be allowed.”
In 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out of the agreement, leading Iran to decide to gradually violate some elements of the pact.
Serving Israeli military officers traditionally refrain from publicly opining on US foreign policy, yet Israel’s top general went on to urge Washington to maintain the previous administration’s so-called maximum pressure sanctions on Tehran “in any way possible, whatever happens.”
Kochavi also revealed he had ordered the military to prepare “several operational plans” for preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, set to be developed by the army in the coming months.
The unusually explicit words aimed at Washington were condemned by some in Israel, who accused the general of inserting the normally neutral and guarded Israeli military into the political fray.
Iranian officials on Wednesday brushed off Kochavi’s remarks as “psychological warfare.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meanwhile, on Wednesday reiterated the new administration’s desire to rejoin the 2015 agreement, but noted the many obstacles currently in the way of that happening, admitting: “We’re a long way from that. We’re not there yet, to say the least.”
President Biden has demanded Tehran roll back its growing uranium enrichment activities, and implied that any future deal will have to include other areas, such as Iran’s burgeoning missile program and its aggressive Middle Eastern policy.
Coinciding with McKenzie’s visit to Israel, CENTCOM on Wednesday conducted a rare B-52 bomber flyover of the region, for only the third time in the past year.
A statement released by CENTCOM said the bombers “successfully completed a presence patrol” in the Middle East, adding that the “defensive mission intended to demonstrate the US military’s ability to deploy air power anywhere in the world to deter potential aggression and showcase the US commitment to regional security.”
In the waning days of his term, former President Trump sent two similar missions, in what was considered a tour de force during extremely tense times in US-Iran relations.
Dr. Yoel Guzansky, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line that the latest developments “strengthen the clear pro-American anti-Iranian bloc.”
“Israel’s inclusion in CENTCOM and its implications are historic,” he said. “This is a natural, long overdue change, which strengthens Israeli cooperation with Gulf states, and makes it easier on US operations as well, transferring forces and information.”
Guzansky said that though the move is merely a shift in Washington’s definitions, it will have tangible effects.
“A large part of Israeli-UAE relations, for example, was conducted in recent years through American mediation. I think pretty soon, we’ll see joint exercises, previously conducted rather secretively, out in the open,” he said.
The transition will not, however, directly affect Israel’s standoff with Iran, he noted.
“That’s a separate issue. But the regional anti-Iranian alignment definitely receives a boost from all this,” he said.