Israel Joins the Arab Club, With U.S. Sponsorship
(This article first appeared in Newsweek https://www.newsweek.com/israel-joins-arab-club-us-sponsorship-opinion-1628991)
By: Simone Ledeene, senior fellow and Victoria Coates
Last week, a laconic statement from the Department of Defense marked a tectonic shift in Middle East security cooperation, as the United States formally designated that Israel would now be part of the U.S Central Command (CENTCOM). President Donald Trump announced the proposed change on January 15, 2021, and while the escalation of violence in Gaza this spring seemed to put the designation in some jeopardy, it went into effect on September 1, 2021. The initiative to move Israel into CENTCOM is a direct result of the Trump administration-led Abraham Accords normalization agreements between the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, signed one year ago today on the South Lawn of the White House.
CENTCOM got its name because the Middle East is literally located in the middle of everything. Israel is the most central point in that centrally located region, sharing as it does a maritime boundary with a European country (Cyprus) and a border with an African country (Egypt), as well as boasting Asian neighbors such as Jordan. In the wake of the Abraham Accords and the resultant burgeoning economic and cultural ties among the signatories, the timing is now ideal to develop a similar regional security relationship. This relationship would expand cooperation and improve Israel Defense Forces (IDF) integration with U.S. and partner forces throughout the region. It would also help CENTCOM promote a more holistic and inclusive regional security framework. There would be opportunities to conduct joint military exercises that include the IDF, which would indirectly provide Israel the occasion to communicate with countries that have yet to sign normalization agreements. Additionally, Israel would now be able to assign IDF liaison officers to CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa—and, hopefully in the future, to subordinate headquarters across the region.
As events in the Middle East crashed into the American consciousness due to the Iran and Afghanistan crises in 1979, President Jimmy Carter established the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (JTF) as a response mechanism for rapidly unfolding events. In 1983, under President Reagan, that JTF became CENTCOM. Its area of operation runs from the Pakistani border with India to Egypt's border with Libya. U.S. military regional combatant commands, including CENTCOM, are responsible for the deployment, support and operational employment of U.S. forces in their areas of responsibility, as well as for developing military relationships with allies and partners in their respective regions.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan pose from the Truman Balcony at the White House after they participated in the signing of the Abraham Accords where the countries of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognize Israel, in Washington, DC, September 15, 2020.
In the course of the 1983 reorganization, Israel, Syria and Lebanon remained part of the European Command (EUCOM), which was established after World War II. At the time, placing Israel under EUCOM made some sense. Israel had existed for just 35 years and had formal diplomatic relations—chilly ones, at that—with only one Arab country: Egypt. All the others refused to recognize or maintain formal ties with the Jewish state. Memories of oil embargoes and the 1970s-era Arab boycott were still fresh, and it seemed only prudent to consider "diplomatic sensitivities" by making CENTCOM the U.S. military's interface with the Arab world. EUCOM provided assistance to the IDF and conducted joint exercises and contingency operations with the IDF and America's NATO allies.
In 2004, however, President George W. Bush moved Syria and Lebanon to CENTCOM, and Israel alone among the countries of the region remained in EUCOM. This encouraged the unfortunate perception that Israel is somehow separate, or different, from the rest of the Middle East. Major threats to Israel were, and are, within CENTCOM's boundaries—specifically, those from Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Israel's airspace is also under CENTCOM's area of operations, including assets involved in detection, suppression and prevention of missile threats in the broader Middle East. The situation has become increasingly awkward, as the European Union is now significantly more anti-Israel than the Arab world; during the 2014 escalation of violence in Gaza, for example, EU complaints about Israel and advocacy for the Palestinians complicated an already-thorny situation. Given that Israel now has full relations with four Arab countries and is developing additional relationships in the region, the Trump administration concluded it was no longer necessary to maintain the fiction that Israel is somehow in Europe. It therefore initiated the process that came to fulfillment on September 1, 2021.
The consequences of President Joe Biden's recent chaotic and catastrophic surrender in Afghanistan, which is also part of CENTCOM's area of operations, may take a generation to fully comprehend. But even in this bleak context, the restructuring of CENTCOM to incorporate Israel stands out as a beacon of hope that, thanks to the Abraham Accords, American national security interests in the Middle East may yet be salvaged—and, if properly supported and encouraged, even strengthened in the future.
Victoria Coates is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and a former deputy national security advisor for the Middle East and North Africa on the National Security Council staff.
Simone Ledeen is a senior fellow at the Gold Institute for International Policy and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East.