January 21, 2021 | Policy Brief

Pentagon Decision on Israel Recognizes Reality and Presents Opportunity

January 21, 2021 | Policy Brief

Pentagon Decision on Israel Recognizes Reality and Presents Opportunity

The Department of Defense announced Friday that it has moved Israel from the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) area of responsibility (AOR) to that of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which includes the Middle East. This reassignment reflects recent breakthroughs in Arab-Israeli relations and provides opportunities to strengthen military cooperation to address the greatest threat to regional security: the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Pentagon divides the globe into AORs and allots responsibility for each to a regional combatant command. EUCOM covers the European landmass and adjacent maritime regions, focusing primarily on the NATO alliance and the threat from Moscow.

CENTCOM is responsible for the wider Middle East and has focused on the threat from Iran and Islamist terrorism as well as the associated conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.

Despite Israel’s location, when CENTCOM was created in 1983, responsibility for the Jewish state was assigned to EUCOM.

Given the geography and respective priorities of the two combatant commands, the decision may have seemed odd. Israel, after all, is located in the Middle East and will remain so despite the efforts of Tehran and its terrorist proxies.

That decision, however, reflected Jerusalem’s isolation at the time, even after its peace agreement with Egypt in 1979 somewhat mitigated the Arab-Israeli conflict.

As the Pentagon noted last week with a bit of understatement, Israel’s regional isolation would have “complicated” efforts by CENTCOM to coordinate multilateral exercises and operations that included Israel.

But, over time, things have changed.

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s persistent efforts to pursue a nuclear weapons capability, export terrorism, subvert its neighbors, and install itself as the regional hegemon made Arab capitals progressively acknowledge, at least in private, that Iran was the real threat to regional security.

Even after Jordan made peace with Israel in 1994, EUCOM continued to take the lead for the Pentagon in coordinating military-to-military relations with Israel. This included, for example, the long-running U.S.-Israel Juniper Cobra missile defense exercise coordinated by EUCOM and conducted every two years.

Then, last year, in a major victory for American diplomacy, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords with Israel. Soon afterward, Morocco and Sudan took steps toward normalization.

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 Pentagon said in its statement.

In response to the Friday announcement, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz praised the move and made clear that the decision followed weeks of bilateral dialogue.

CENTCOM, of course, maintained a relationship with Israel before this decision, one that grew over time. CENTCOM commanders visited Israel recently, and U.S. Air Forces Central Command conducted F-35 exercises with Israel last year despite the pandemic.

But this latest move by the Pentagon can facilitate deeper cooperation between the United States, Israel, and its Arab neighbors, including the expansion of existing exercises and the addition of new ones. For example, CENTCOM should seek to add Israel to the next iteration of the U.S.-UAE Iron Union exercise.

Regardless, while CENTCOM will play the lead role, it will be important to sustain key elements of EUCOM’s coordination and connectivity with Israel. This can help sustain vital existing cooperation, facilitate needed multilateral exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean, and provide a hedge against any major reversal in recent progress in Arab-Israeli relations.

If properly implemented, the transition of Israel to CENTCOM’s portfolio can begin to foster a broader, more unified, and more capable regional military coalition to protect shared interests and deter aggression from Tehran.

Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). For more analysis from Bradley and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Bradley on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Arab Politics Egypt Gulf States Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Nuclear Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Jordan Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy