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In February 2006, former US deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs Ronald Asmus published an opinion piece in The Washington Post calling for NATO to dramatically upgrade its relationship with Israel, perhaps even granting it full membership.
"There are growing signs that Israel is interested in such a relationship with NATO," wrote Asmus. "About two years ago I was approached by a group of Israelis and asked to help facilitate a closer Israeli-NATO dialogue. At the time, the idea seemed a bit far-fetched to manyâ€¦ Talking with my Israeli interlocutors two years ago, I asked them how they envisioned the circumstances under which Israel might one day seek NATO membership.
"They laid out two scenarios. The first was one in which Israel was moving toward a final peace settlement with Palestinians and an upgraded relationship with NATO became a key element in a package to persuade the Israeli public to opt for peace. The second was a scenario in which Iran acquired nuclear weapons and posed a real and growing threat to Israel. Having lost its own extended deterrence, Israel would turn to the West and NATO to help guarantee its very real security needs."
What was "far-fetched" four years ago - and an interesting idea last year - is today right out on the agenda. In her speech Monday night at the IDC Herzliya's Annual NATO-Israel Symposium, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was not bashful in expressing her feelings about Israel's relationship with the security alliance: "NATO was established in the early days of the Cold War to defend democracy and to secure the freedom of the Western world. Israel was established as a democracy, in a sea of nondemocratic entities. In this context, Israel, till today, represents these values in the entire Middle East region. As Israel and NATO are partners in upholding the values of democracy, so also we are partners in meeting the threat of extremismâ€¦ Israel seeks a formal partnership relationship with NATO. Israel's efforts to enhance relations with NATO are part of its broader foreign policy to bolster Israel's multilateral diplomacy."
What Livni did not ask for was that Israel should become a full-fledged member of NATO. Israel already has a relationship with the organization that is unique for this region. It was the first member of the Mediterranean Dialogue group of nations to have joined the so-called Individual Cooperation Program, and the only one to have taken part in joint military exercises with NATO forces in the Black Sea and Gulf of Eilat.
In asking for a "formal partnership relationship," Livni was suggesting that Israel move up the hierarchy of NATO associates, perhaps to the level of the 23 nations in Partnership for Peace (PfP), set up in 1994 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, or maybe even the "Intensified Dialogue" stage of such aspiring members as Ukraine or Georgia.
But full-fledged membership? That's not yet Israeli policy - and even it was, Livni wouldn't put the NATO officials in attendance on the spot with a request for something that the organization's spokesman recently said was not yet "for today and tomorrow."
But what about the day after tomorrow? After all, there are a growing number of serious people, both here abroad - most notably former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Arznar, US presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani and Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman - who now support the idea of Israel joining NATO.
This, despite the fact that being a full member of NATO could conceivably limit this country's military freedom of action, not only internally, but externally. NATO's "membership action plan" states clearly that candidates must demonstrate a "willingness to settle international, ethnic or external territorial disputes by peaceful means" - a condition that could be interpreted in any number of ways to complicate Israel's relations with its Palestinian and Arab neighbors.
Yet the two circumstances cited above in Asmus's piece - providing a sweetener for Israel as part of a final-status deal with the Palestinians, and a security umbrella against the threat of a nuclear Iran - seem to be on a convergence course in the last few months. Indeed, just last week former justice minister Amnon Rubenstein published a piece in this newspaper linking the two, arguing that making any further security concessions in the age of a nuclear Iran requires that any agreement Israel signs off on with the Palestinians, at Annapolis or beyond, "must be accompanied by strategic security arrangements in the context of NATO."
Comments by NATO officials at the Herzliya gathering this week make it clear that the organization is not ready to provide "strategic security arrangements" that could potentially bring it into a direct conflict with Iran, especially at a time when its resources are being badly stretched by its commitments in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
But those officials have also always cited Israel's lack of clearly defined borders - a requirement of NATO membership - as an impediment of such arrangements. What if NATO itself was part of the solution to resolving that border dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, either by providing an Israeli government willing to make the necessary territorial concessions with regional security guarantees, or even sending troops to help police the Palestinian territories? What rationale could the organization give in refusing to take an active role in helping to resolve a dispute it has always cited as an impediment in expanding its role in the vulnerable southeast flank of the Mediterranean basin?
In return, NATO would likely benefit greatly from increased security assistance from Israel, especially as its primary mission has shifted from safeguarding Europe's eastern border from the Soviet Union's conventional military might, to combating radical Islamic terror and fighting unconventional wars of the sort now taking place in Afghanistan.
Still, Israel's NATO aspirations will likely have to wait for the time being. Once before in its past, due to immediate security concerns, the organization chose to reach out and take in as a member a nation that largely lies outside Europe's borders, and was still embroiled in sometimes violent disputes both with neighboring states and an ethnic minority within its own self-determined territory.
That country was of course Turkey, and even as NATO officials meet in Herzliya, they have to be casting an uneasy eye at the doings on the Turkish-Iraq border, where one NATO state is launching raids into a nation currently occupied by the forces of NATO's founder-member.
It took years for the concept of "collective security" to truly take firm hold in the fertile climate of post-World War II Western Europe. In these harsher and more unsettled climes, where the lines of conflict are far less clearly drawn, it's no surprise that NATO is in no rush to bring Israel too deeply into its safe embrace.
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