Will Austin’s appointment see Israel move from EUCOM to CENTCOM?
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
During testimony before Congress in 2015, Gen. Lloyd Austin, then head of the US Central Command, told members of the House Armed Services Committee that he had a “great relationship” with former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz.
“My hope, and I know this will be the case, is that we will continue to have a very, very strong relationship going forward,” he said at the time. On Monday, CNN reported that President-elect Joe Biden had decided to nominate Austin to be his secretary of defense. He would be the first African-American to hold the post.
Back in 2015, Austin spoke about the military-to-military relationship with Israel. Even though Israel is not in the CENTCOM area of operations – it is under the European Command – the general noted that Israel bordered his region of responsibility. “We certainly see a need to maintain good connectivity,” he told the committee.
Austin made several important points about Israel in that March 2015 testimony to Congress. Asked about Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon, he responded: “To your point that you made earlier, sir, I think the people – the leaders in the region – certainly believe that Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon is a threat to the region,” he said.
Austin was CENTCOM from 2013 to March 2016; he also commanded US troops in Iraq. Gantz was chief of staff from 2011 to 2015, so their terms overlapped. With Israel heading into a new election, the relationship with Gantz may be important, depending on the outcome. What is surely important is that Austin had a keen interest in Israel and wanted a close relationship with the country.
News of his planned appointment comes amid increased talk of shifting Israel from EUCOM to CENTCOM.
In a November discussion between Michael Makovsky, president of Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), and retired Gen. Charles Wald, a former deputy commander of US European Command, support for moving Israel from one command to the other was openly expressed. Israel has traditionally been in EUCOM to mitigate Arab opposition to having CENTCOM forces cooperate with them and with Israel at the same time.
But due to the recent peace accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – as well as the push for normalization throughout the Middle East and North Africa – that could change.
“The recent Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain both reflect and augur a growing strategic alignment between Israel and key American partners in the Middle East, driven primarily by the worsening Iranian nuclear and regional threats,” JINSA’s website notes. “The next crucial step is for the United States to relocate Israel to the area of responsibility (AOR) for American forces in the Middle East, known as U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).”
This is important and dovetails well with reports that Austin could be the new defense secretary. Overall, the Biden administration is expected to be close to Israel. However, there are questions about whether it will take a different view on Iran and be tougher on Saudi Arabia.
Austin will bring years of experience in the region to the helm of the Pentagon and to likely be more cautious and pragmatic.
The Trump administration has sought to patch up the Gulf dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The US has bases in Qatar and also in the UAE and Bahrain. In addition, the current US National Defense Strategy is interested in confronting China and Russia and doing less war against terrorist operations. US President Donald Trump, for instance, is pulling US troops out of Somalia.
Austin would need to balance these relationships and decide on a forceful global posture. Being familiar with Israel is a major asset – and is important for a new defense secretary.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post