Israel's growing role in CENTCOM - opinion

CENTCOM is one of seven regional combatant commands the US deploys around the globe to deter enemies and nurture friends.

 FROM LEFT, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Commander of the US Central Command Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr. and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi in Tel Aviv, last year.  (photo credit: ARIEL HERMONI/DEFENSE MINISTRY)
FROM LEFT, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Commander of the US Central Command Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr. and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi in Tel Aviv, last year.

‘There will be 10 generals and 10 admirals in the audience,” said the American colonel on the telephone. “They’ll be sitting right opposite you.”

I was being invited to participate in a symposium on Israel at US Central Command (CENTCOM) headquarters in Florida last October but I found that phalanx of brass intimidating. As a draftee in the American army decades before, I had spent two years at Fort Benning (“Home of the Infantry”) without ever seeing a general. But the invitation was too intriguing to pass up. 

CENTCOM is one of seven regional combatant commands the US deploys around the globe to deter enemies and nurture friends. Inserted like a tectonic plate between Europe and Africa in 1983, CENTCOM’s area of responsibility (AOR) would prove one of the most politically unstable regions on the planet. Only a few weeks before the invitation, the command had completed its harrowing pullout from Afghanistan, the latest of a long series of wars and skirmishes. More challenges were already awaiting. But it moved ahead with the symposium, which was intended to welcome Israel to CENTCOM as a regional partner.

CENTCOM’s boundaries encompass the Middle East from Egypt to Iran inclusively, much of Central Asia, and Pakistan in South Asia. The seas adjoining this landmass also fall in large part within CENTCOM’s AOR, which accounts for the admirals at the symposium. Until five months before, Israel had been the only country in the Middle East not covered by CENTCOM.

Regarded by Washington as an awkward fit for its all-Muslim neighborhood, Israel was instead placed within the sphere of European Command (EUCOM). The Israeli military thus routinely interacted with its NATO counterparts. However, toward the end of the Trump administration, the Pentagon concluded that hostility toward Israel was waning in the Middle East as exemplified by the Abraham Accords, enabling the country’s shift to its proper geographical slot.

CENTCOM Gen. Kenneth McKenzie (credit: Wikimedia Commons)CENTCOM Gen. Kenneth McKenzie (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“The realignment,” declared a CENTCOM statement, “offers opportunities to deepen operational collaboration between the IDF and CENTCOM’s many partners in the region.” 

The shift became official on September 1. CENTCOM’s commander, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, a marine, went ahead with the symposium the following month to welcome the new regional partner, and acquaint his own senior commanders and staffs with “the ways Israel is a product of its history, identity, geography and more recent relations with its regional neighbors.” The speakers, mostly from US think tanks, included several Israelis.

I was invited because I had written a book on the Yom Kippur War, a subject in which McKenzie had special interest, according to the aide who called me. He said the general often spoke about the war when addressing groups of officers. Its battlefields now lay within CENTCOM’s boundaries. I was asked to talk about Israel’s intelligence failures before the war, notably the failure to mobilize its reserves before the Arab attack despite the buildup of Arab armies along its borders.

Central Command’s headquarters is located in an air force base in Tampa but the symposium was held off base. The generals and admirals were all in civilian dress. McKenzie, an Alabaman with a soft Southern drawl and 43 years of military service behind him, proved a congenial host. When someone remarked that some of his generals looked surprisingly young, the commander said “Well, we have some old ones too,” plainly alluding to his 66-year-old self.

During a break in the symposium, one of the officers asked me about the IDF’s belated mobilization on Yom Kippur after Egypt and Syria had already broken through the Israeli lines. The closest to such an event in American military experience may have been Paul Revere’s nighttime ride 250 years before to warn the colonists near Boston that the British were coming.

Referring to the reservists, who made up two-thirds of Israel’s armed forces, the officer – I assumed he was one of the generals – asked “Were they ready?”

After reaching their bases, I said, the men had to arm their tanks from scratch, which took precious hours. “But were they ready to fight?” he persisted. Most of the reservists had been in synagogues when army couriers arrived to announce the call-up. Within 12 hours of the beginning of mobilization, lead reserve elements engaged a mass of Syrian tanks that had broken through on the Golan. The early arrivals succeeded in slowing the Syrians down until the main reserve formations arrived. Within six days the outnumbered Israeli forces, most of them reserve units, had crossed the border after fierce battles, probably the most intense since the Second World War, and were shelling the outskirts of Damascus.

The massive airlift of American weaponry to Israel later in the war marked the beginning of an intimate military relationship between the two countries. Each side managed over the years to avoid direct combat involvement in the other side’s wars in the region but they engaged in fruitful exchanges of intelligence, joint air and ground exercises, the pre-positioning in Israel by the US of munitions for America’s own emergency needs and other forms of cooperation.

In an article last month in Haaretz, its veteran security correspondent, Amir Oren, revealed that Israel had been offered in the 1980s a direct role in an American conflict – against the Soviet Union no less, a contingency plan of Central Command but never implemented. The plan’s complex scenario envisioned a Soviet-Iranian confrontation turning into a Soviet-US confrontation. 

“Be prepared to attack and defeat any Soviet effort to control the oil of the Middle East,” wrote the planners. A specific role was reserved for Israel, which “would ensure the safety of the Suez Canal by striking Soviet forces in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

Israel’s leaders have always been strongly averse to provoking the Soviet bear. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was reported to have said, presumably in half-jest, that he had only to hear that the Red Army choir was to perform in an adjacent Arab country and he begins sweating. 

Oren learned from a retired Israeli defense official that Israel went along with the American simulation “because it helped foster closer relations with our opposite numbers.” Furthermore, he noted, it was not an operational plan but “an exercise in the practice of planning.”

McKenzie floated his own pointed message to Tehran in an interview published last month in The National, a UAE-backed newspaper. Pro-Iranian militias, said the CENTCOM commander, have been making “earnest attempts” to kill American soldiers. “Sooner or later,” he said, “it’s almost inevitable that they will succeed, and Iran will provoke precisely what it seeks to avoid.”

To combat the threat from Iran and its proxies, the general called in the interview for an “integrated regional strategy that includes Israel,” a country now officially ensconced at CENTCOM’s table as a regional partner.

The writer is author of The Yom Kippur War. Email: [email protected]