In one of its final decisions, the Trump administration moved Israel from the purview of the Pentagon’s European Command (EUCOM) to the Area of Responsibility (AOR) of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), which spans the states of the Middle East (except for Turkey and Cyprus, which come under the European Command), the periphery of the new Middle East (the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan), as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan’s inclusion stems from the need to separate it from India (which is under the US Pacific-Indo Command). Israel has become the 21st state under CENTCOM’s AOR, joining Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, the six Gulf States, Yemen and others.
Although the Israeli media reported the move, its significance appears to have been sidelined by the dramatic news of the Capitol insurgency and Joe Biden’s inauguration as president under unprecedented security.
The US and its allies have been involved in several conflicts in the CENTCOM’s AOR, chief among them the 1991 Gulf War (“Operation Desert Storm”), various military operations in Iraq in the 1990s, military action in Afghanistan since 2001, and various other campaigns in Syria, Iraq, the Gulf and Iran over the past two decades. CENTCOM’s top priority, according to its website, is deterring Iran – combating the remnants of the Islamic State organization, helping resolve the conflict in Afghanistan, countering the threat of weaponized drones and more.
Israel’s placement under CENTCOM obviously stems from its recent normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, and indirectly from those with Sudan and Morocco. According to the Department of Defense announcement, “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.”
PLACING ISRAEL under the same command as its Arab neighbors is nothing short of a revolution in strategic regional thinking. Since its foundation, and especially in the 1950s and 60s, Israel made desperate attempts to join the Western defense alliances against the Soviet Union and the communist threat. In addition to NATO in Europe, and SEATO in Asia, Britain and the US established the regional Baghdad Pact in 1955, which included Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. The Israeli-Arab conflict prevented Israel’s inclusion in that coalition. Just as India and Pakistan cannot be members of the same regional organization, so Israel and the Arab states could not. The refusal by regional organizations, including NATO, to accept Israel increased its sense of isolation vis-à-vis the Arab threat.
Its inclusion at the time under the Pentagon’s European Command obviously defied geographic logic, but was meant to overcome military and political impediments stemming from Israel’s inclusion in the same arena as the states with which it was at war. A similar decision was made in the UN context, when Arab states successfully barred Israel from the Asian bloc of nations, preventing its membership in international organizations arranged according to regional groupings. It was only in May 2000 that Israel gained acceptance into the “Western European and Others Group.”
The US decision to place Israel under the CENTCOM umbrella along with Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf States illustrates the willingness of these states to cooperate with Israel openly against the Iranian threat. The Americans still maintain military bases in Bahrain and Qatar, but given the gradual US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, Israel and other countries in the region appear to be assuming a growing role in defending against the Iranian threat.
Israel’s inclusion under CENTCOM also illustrates, on the one hand, US intentions to pull out of the region, and on the other the expected expansion of Israel’s military role in shared threat areas such as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, as proven in a growing number of attacks attributed to Israel, with US intelligence help, in these countries.
BEYOND THE military importance of the American move, it is also of symbolic significance in restoring Israel to its natural place in the Middle East. Israeli decision makers have generally not perceived their state as part of the Middle East, both due to the constraints of the Israeli-Arab conflict but also as a reflection of political and cultural preferences. Mitvim’s public opinion surveys indicate that Israeli society is consistently torn on this issue. The 2020 survey found that 29% think Israel belongs more to the Middle East than to other regions, 25% think it belongs more to the Mediterranean Basin, 24% to Europe and 22% did not think Israel belonged to any region or said they did not have an opinion.
With Israelis unable to decide, along came the Trump administration and decided for them. President Joe Biden could, of course, reverse the decision, as he has with other Trump directives. Nonetheless, the decision appears highly logical, both geographically and given the changes under way in the Middle East regarding normalization with Israel. It will be interesting to see whether all these shifts also change Israeli society’s perception of its place and affiliation in the region.
The writer teaches at Hebrew University’s Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and is a Board member of Mitvim, The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.