Thursday, January 7, 2010

Israel and NATO – Between Membership and Partnership

MADRID – The idea of integrating Israel into NATO has frequently been advanced as bait to encourage the Jewish state to make the necessary concessions for an Arab-Israeli peace settlement. And some Israeli leaders – Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, for example – are convinced that joining NATO would act as a vital deterrent against Iran.

But it is highly unlikely that Israel’s full integration into the Alliance is feasible from NATO’s standpoint. The Alliance would not be happy to apply Article 5 of the NATO charter, which would oblige its members to fight for Israel if it were attacked by any of its many potential enemies in an endemically dangerous region.

Nor is it clear that membership would be in the best interest of Israel, a country whose defense doctrine has been always based on self-reliance and freedom of maneuver in security matters. Israel’s unwritten alliance with the United States is a more convenient alternative.

Cooperation and even partnership with NATO – an interim stage potentially leading to membership – is another matter. Notwithstanding the stalled peace process and the adverse effect that Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is having on its international standing, NATO and Israel have been incrementally strengthening their cooperation in recent years. This serves the interests of both sides.

For the Israelis, cooperation with NATO is a major component of legitimacy in its frequently troubled relations with the West; for NATO, cooperation serves its capacity to work in new theaters of operation and respond to the changing profile of the threats it confronts. Such is NATO’s interest in Israel that Patrick Hardouin, a high official at the Political Affairs and Security Policy Department of the Alliance, made it explicit in 2006, saying that “the ups and downs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must not limit Israel-NATO cooperation.”

In recent years, NATO has been undergoing major changes in both its deployment and objectives. Two landmarks define these changes: the end of the Cold War, which rendered NATO’s defensive strategy against the Soviet Union obsolete, and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US, which changed the profile of the enemy and the nature of the battlefield. It also changed the theater of operation, and forced the Alliance to shift its attention from Europe to the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and beyond.

NATO’s Mediterranean emphasis was inaugurated in 1994 through the Mediterranean Dialogue, which linked countries like Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, and Tunisia in security discussions with the Alliance. The Dialogue was not exactly an edifying success, however.

The Istanbul Cooperation Initiative of 2004, triggered by the trauma of the 9/11 attacks, holds far greater potential, for it transforms NATO’s relations with friendly states in the Middle East from dialogue to partnership – a level comparable to the Partnership for Peace program used to promote Central and Eastern European countries to full membership. Under this framework, multilateral cooperation in combating terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction was offered to the region’s main actors. The Initiative also envisages the promotion of regional defense reforms and the improvement of interoperability among military forces in the region.

Nevertheless, both the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Initiative suffer from the lack of a real multilateral culture of cooperation in security matters among the main regional players. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a major political obstacle, but by no means the only one. Morocco, Algeria, and Libya are hardly partners for such regional cooperation, which is also the case for most Arab countries in the Middle East.

Not surprisingly, then, of all the states in the region, it is Israel that has established the closest links with NATO. This reflects the benefits that NATO believes can be drawn from Israel’s unique military experience. Israel recently became the first country to conclude an Individual Cooperation Program with NATO, through which it conducts an ongoing strategic dialogue with the Alliance covering a wide array of areas, including terrorism, intelligence sharing, nuclear proliferation, procurement and logistics, and rescue operations. Israel also joined NATO’s naval control system in the Mediterranean, contributing to Operation Active Endeavor by joining NATO forces in patrolling the Mediterranean.

Both sides seem eager to expand the scope of their partnership, with the objective of reaching a high level of interoperability. Recently, in anticipation of a hypothetical confrontation with Iran, a major military maneuver – the Juniper Cobra exercise – was conducted to test Israel’s integration into US ballistic missile defenses. American sources described the drill as “the most complete air missile defense system we’ve ever done anywhere in the world.” It was a major contribution, they said, to the development of a planned NATO missile shield for Europe.

The options for further cooperation are many, ranging from intelligence and procurement to the development of an updated anti-terrorism doctrine (including cyber-terrorism), a domain to which NATO is a newcomer. David Ben-Gurion’s dream of Israel becoming a NATO member might not materialize, but the developing partnership reflects the Alliance’s unequivocal recognition that Israel shares the challenges facing the West and is a vital partner in developing responses to them.

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