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Shifting Israel to the Area of Responsibility (AOR) for U.S. Forces in the Middle East

For all the well-deserved attention surrounding the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, the logical next move – one that would quietly be impactful – is actually a bit of bureaucratic arcana. Shifting Israel to the area of responsibility (AOR) for America’s forces in the Middle East could achieve important strategic dividends for both countries and the broader region.

The U.S. military divides its global responsibilities into combatant commands, or “COCOMs,” which enable the Pentagon to cooperate and coordinate with regional partners on strategy, training, doctrine, logistics, intelligence, technology, procurement and operations. Logic would dictate that Israel be placed under the AOR of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), but hostility of Arab countries toward it led the Jewish State to be placed in the AOR of European Command (EUCOM).

Now, however, the Middle East looks very different than when the Pentagon initially drew these boundaries. For years, Israel has been working closely with Egypt’s and Jordan’s military and intelligence services against ISIS, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and other common threats. That cooperation accelerated and expanded to other Arab countries as America retrenched from the region–tilting toward Iran under President Obama– and Iranian and Turkish aggression filled the ensuing vacuum. The Abraham Accords marks a natural progression for this convergence of interests and rising cooperation.

CENTCOM, keenly mindful of the attitudes of America’s Arab allies in its AOR, has taken initial steps to adjust to these changes. Its 2018 posture statement included Israel in the “active area” for regional security cooperation, and Gen. Joseph Votel visited Israel that year, the first ever such public trip for a CENTCOM commander.

Given shared challenges from Iran and Hezbollah, EUCOM and CENTCOM also started planning for joint U.S.-Israel operations. Around the same time, U.S. forces from CENTCOM began participating in joint Israel-EUCOM missile defense exercises to train against attacks from Iran and its proxies. There is also an Israel-CENTCOM-EUCOM, or “ICE,” forum for informal coordination on other issues.

These steps, while welcome, are ad hoc and do not enable Israel, the United States, and Arab partners to realize the full benefits of closer strategic cooperation that would follow from moving Israel to CENTCOM’s AOR, as we recommended in a comprehensive report on expanding the U.S.-Israel security partnership.

Such a move would reflect new Middle Eastern realities on the ground embodied in the Abraham Accords and send a strong deterrent message of regional unity. It also would reflect Israel’s growing outlier status in EUCOM, which is returning to its traditional focus on strengthening NATO to counter Russia in Europe.

Putting Israel in CENTCOM’s AOR would smooth the way for the Pentagon to utilize Israel more for regional operations, including by prepositioning precision-guided munitions and other much-needed weaponry for the U.S., Israeli and possibly partner Arab forces. These munitions are critical to Israel’s continued ability to defend U.S. interests by rolling back the military footprint of Iran and its proxies and by preparing for a looming major war against those forces.

Moving Israel to CENTCOM’s AOR would enhance U.S.-Israel, and Israel-Arab, coordination on military operations, strategic planning, early warning and critical infrastructure protection, including against Iranian nuclear, conventional and terrorism threats. It would also enable the United States and Israel to extend their impressive operational and technical achievements on missile defense to the rest of the Middle East – a paramount consideration amid regionwide missile proliferation by Iran and Hezbollah. Further, it would enable more direct American and Arab learning from Israel’s hard-won lessons in its ongoing campaign against Iran.

To succeed, some adjustments would have to be made. For instance, CENTCOM would need to prioritize continued robust U.S.-Israel cooperation on missile defense, as Israel’s world-class systems are closely aligned with EUCOM on joint training, planning and deployments.

It is true that several U.S. partners in CENTCOM still don’t recognize Israel. However, that was also the case for decades with EUCOM, which formerly included the Middle East and Africa. We understand some of these countries don’t oppose Israel’s inclusion, marking further progress in Israel’s ongoing diplomatic breakthroughs with Arab neighbors.

Furthermore, moving Israel to CENTCOM’s AOR would follow a trend of aligning COCOM boundaries to changing strategic landscapes and U.S. operational requirements, which was behind the 2007 creation of the U.S. Africa Command out of EUCOM in 2007. With the looming specter of a major war between Israel and Iran across much of CENTCOM’s existing AOR, shifting Israel would facilitate more effective communications and coordination between the U.S. military and the IDF.

The Abraham Accords and now normalization between Israel and Sudan mark terrific diplomatic progress. It’s time to reflect and build upon those successes by moving Israel to CENTCOM’s area of responsibility.

Michael Makovsky, a former Pentagon official, is President and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). Gen. (ret.) Charles Wald, former Deputy Commander of U.S. European Command is a Distinguished Fellow at JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy.

Originally published in RealClearDefense