President Trump has ordered that the major U.S. military command for the Middle East be expanded to include Israel, in a last-minute reorganization of the American defense structure that pro-Israel groups have long advocated to encourage cooperation against Iran, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The move means that the U.S. Central Command would oversee American military policy involving both Israel and Arab nations, a departure from decades of U.S. military command structure put in place because of acrimony between Israel and some of the Pentagon’s Arab allies.
It is the latest in a series of Trump administration policy moves to shape the national security agenda President-elect Joe Biden will inherit. The change was recently ordered by Mr. Trump but hasn’t yet been made public. A Biden transition official declined to comment on the move.
U.S. military responsibility for Israel had long been allocated to its European command. That arrangement enabled U.S. generals in the Middle East to interact with Arab states without having a close association with Israel, which at the time was seen as an adversary in the Arab world.
Following the Abraham Accords that led to the normalization of Israel’s relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, pro-Israel groups have stepped up their push to have the Central Command take on responsibility for military operations and planning involving Israel to foster greater cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
“Now, Gen. Frank McKenzie can go to Saudi Arabia, Emirates and Israel and visit everyone in his newly enlarged parish,” a U.S. official said, referring to the four-star Marine general who heads the Central Command.
The Jewish Institute for National Security of America, a Washington-based group that supports close military cooperation between the U.S. and Israel, urged the shift in December as a way to encourage the emerging alignment between Israel and key Arab states against Iran.
Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine general and former head of the Central Command, said Thursday that “the timing could be right to do this.”
“We could see more Arab countries recognize Israel, so it makes sense to bring them all in under one unified American command,” Gen. Zinni added. “It will make security cooperation better. It would not have made sense in the past because there was too much mistrust. There was a fear then that if Israel was in the Central Command there would be U.S. intelligence sharing with Israel on its Arab neighbors.”
Another retired U.S. military officer agreed that the move that would reinforce U.S. efforts to normalize ties between Israel and Arab states. He cautioned, however, that it would add to the burden on a Central Command headquarters that already has responsibility for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and other hot spots in the Middle East.
Another potential complication for Central Command could come if the American effort to strengthen ties between Israel and Arab states falters and their relations sour. Such a development could put the U.S. military in the awkward position of working with allies suspicious of each other’s intentions.
While Israel has improved ties with Gulf states, the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians is deep and unresolved. Saudi Arabia, the most important Arab state in the Gulf region, also has yet to normalize relations with Israel.
By making the decision during his last days in office, Mr. Trump has left it to his successor to fully implement the decision and deal with the consequences, this former military officer added.
Spokesmen for the Central Command and the Israeli embassy in Washington declined to comment.
Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israeli who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that some Israelis previously had seen some benefit in working with the European Command because it associated them with a headquarters that plays a central role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But as Iran has become a growing worry for Israel and Gulf Arab states, working with the Central Command makes more sense for Israel, he added.
“I think it is a good thing,” Mr. Indyk said.
Dennis Ross, a former U.S. peace negotiator, said that the change was overdue. “I don’t think the Biden people will have a problem with it, and I think the Israelis will welcome it as a reflection of the new realities in the region,” Mr. Ross said.
Write to Michael R. Gordon at email@example.com and Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com