From the Iron Curtain to Afghanistan... to the West Bank?

NATO’s search for purpose following the collapse of communism may be leading it right into the heart of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

May 28, 2010 15:43
US troops in Afghanistan.

US troops Afghanistan 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)


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In mid-2004, several months after Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, a former Dutch foreign minister, took up his duties as NATO secretary-general, defense officials in Tel Aviv got an interesting phone call from their colleagues at the military alliance headquarters in Brussels.

Seemingly under pressure by the Palestinians, Scheffer was putting out feelers regarding the possibility of sending peacekeeping forces to the West Bank.

Israel, still fighting against the second intifada, immediately rejected the idea, declaring that it would not surrender the operational freedom it retained for itself in places like Nablus and Jenin – the terror capitals of northern Samaria. Others within NATO corridors were also adamantly opposed.

While never formalized, what was agreed verbally between the sides were three conditions for NATO involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the the territorial dispute had to be resolved before NATO could intervene, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority had to request a NATO deployment and the mandate would first need to be approved by the United Nations.

But that was six years ago. Today, with US-brokered proximity talks picking up speed, the possible future involvement of NATO in helping to maintain a peace deal – as reportedly discussed earlier this month by PA President Mahmoud Abbas and US envoy George Mitchell – is becoming more realistic.

The phone call in 2004, officials who were involved in the discussions said this week, was a demonstration of NATO’s search for a new purpose in a post-communist reality. Established to support the North Atlantic Treaty signed in Washington in 1949, and created in the face of the threat of an armed attack against Western Europe by the Soviet Union, NATO had lost its significance following the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989.

The 9/11 attacks sparked an internal transformation within NATO, which began to change its focus to fighting terrorism in the Middle East; it currently is running operations in Afghanistan.

This search for a new meaning culminated in last week’s presentation by former US secretary of state Madeline Albright of a new blueprint for NATO for the next decade. While making the traditional call to improve ties with Russia, the Albright-led panel, which was appointed by the NATO secretariat-general, recommended that the military alliance expand its mandate to include counterterrorism and missile defense, as well as containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The recommendations have yet to be ratified, but they do demonstrate a dramatic change in NATO’s focus.

Israel had actually worked hard to influence the outcome of Albright’s report. During the work on the strategic review, a number of Israeli officials spoke with her and attended NATO conferences where the recommendations were debated.

The hope was to get the new concept to focus on nuclear proliferation and the global war on terror. The concern, as demonstrated by the criticism Israel faced following Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, was that European countries still fail to recognize that all Western countries are fighting the same war on terror, whether it is in Afghanistan, Iraq or the Gaza Strip.

ISRAEL’S RELATIONSHIP with NATO began to take its current form in 1994, when it was invited alongside Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Jordan to become a member of the Mediterranean Dialogue, a forum for political consultation and practical cooperation among countries in the Mediterranean region.

In 2004, relations were bolstered during a NATO summit in Istanbul, during which a resolution was passed calling for increased strategic cooperation between NATO and specific Mediterranean countries, including Israel. The new level of cooperation referred to joint activities against terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, securing of borders, preparations for mass disasters and participation in NATO maneuvers.

In March, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi attended a NATO conference in Turkey. Two months earlier he attended a chiefs of staff conference in Brussels. In November, Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola, chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, visited the country, and the Israel Navy is in the final stages of preparations ahead of the scheduled deployment of a missile ship with Active Endeavour, a NATO mission to patrol the Mediterranean Sea and prevent terror and weapons smuggling, later this year.

Israel is also seeking to receive an upgraded status following the conclusion of the strategic concept review that will enable officials to participate in top NATO forums even though it is not a member of the alliance. As part of this process, in January Israel adopted the NATO codification system, which would identify and classify military equipment like alliance member states.

The idea to deploy NATO troops in the Palestinian territories is not new. When James Jones, the White House’s national security adviser, served as the Bush administration’s envoy to the Middle East, he also raised the possibility. A former commander of NATO forces, Jones still believes in that idea.

In late 2008, Jones discussed the possibility with some of America’s European allies. The plan called for stationing third-party troops in the West Bank to secure the area in the interim period following an Israeli withdrawal and before the Palestinian Authority can take over full security control.

While PA security forces have dramatically improved since then, the idea is still being considered as one of the ways the international community will be able to ease Israeli concern that a withdrawal from the West Bank will jeopardize national security.

Jones was a natural proponent to use NATO forces in resolving disputes, given his history with the alliance. And as national security adviser, the former Marine Corps commander is in a position where he can still influence the process.

In Israel, though, opinions are split. Some officials believe NATO could play an effective peacekeeping role. It is an effective force, in contrast to UNIFIL in Lebanon, which, while it has troops from Spain, France and Italy, also draws support from Ghana, Nepal and Tanzania.

The other school of thought argues that NATO’s presence would greatly complicate any future IDF response to Palestinian aggression following a withdrawal from the West Bank and the establishment of the Palestinian state.

“What do we do if we are attacked by the PA?” one official asked this week. “Can we respond if there are thousands of NATO troops deployed in the territory?”

While that question may seem premature, it might need to be answered in the coming months, as NATO may look to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as its next source of meaning and relevance.

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