"The ups and downs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must not limit Israel-NATO cooperation," the alliance's Deputy Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Security Policy Dr. Patrick Hardouin told Israeli officials and NATO delegates on Tuesday.
Hardouin's comments in favor of expanded NATO-Israel ties came in the wake of the October 16 conclusion of the Individual Cooperation Program (ICP) agreement, which created a formal framework for cooperation between Israel and the alliance in 27 areas, including intelligence sharing, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) defense and civilian emergency preparedness.
Opinion: Israel in NATO?
The comments were delivered at a Tuesday forum on NATO's relations with Mediterranean countries and Israel sponsored by the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.
Israel's move closer to the trans-Atlantic alliance is widely seen as a significant step in NATO's bid to redefine its post-9/11 role around the world and particularly in the Middle East. Israel is the first state to formalize an ICP agreement with NATO, putting it on what some hope will become a fast track toward close-knit security and political ties, and even membership.
While Israeli officials and academics generally approve of improving relations with the alliance, much skepticism surrounds the question of membership.
"I support creating frameworks for cooperation, but not membership," said Prof. Dan Schueftan, deputy director of the University of Haifa's National Security Studies Center.
Like most of those who oppose Israeli membership in NATO, Schueftan's primary concern is over Israel's security independence.
"Once Israel joins NATO, the claim of the alliance will be that since it defends Israel, Israel must surrender its own strategic capabilities, or at least make them transparent to alliance members," he said.
This would have disastrous results for Israeli deterrence, Schueftan continued. "Those who think in terms of NATO's deterrent capabilities are still thinking about the old kind of war," he said. "I'm talking about the new kind of war, in which Israel's dependence on multilateral frameworks to act will only convince the radicals that the likelihood of Israel responding to provocations is lowered. This will increase the desirability of such provocations."
The newly-improved ties with Israel have also affected the internal debate within NATO over the direction the alliance should take.
Founded in 1949 as a military pact among the Western European and North American democracies in response to the threat posed by Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, NATO has long been a primary political force shaping the European strategic environment. However, following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent disappearance of the threat that had been the alliance's raison d'etre, many have commented on NATO's apparent "crisis of identity."
The main question, according to Dr. Ronald Asmus, executive director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, is whether "the democratic West can reorganize [through NATO] to deal with new threats" around the globe.
NATO already reinvented itself after 1989, Asmus said, and must do so again. For him, this includes the transformation of NATO into the strategic tool of the democratic West in reshaping the Middle East, partly through expanding into the region.
While the core of this idea - turning NATO into a military alliance of the world's democracies - has encountered much resistance among NATO member states, its appeal is on the rise. An October 12 op-ed in The International Herald Tribune bemoaned the fact that "NATO's ability to bring together countries with similar values and interests to combat global problems is constrained by the exclusively trans-Atlantic character of its membership."
The expansion of the organization to other areas in the world is not the only issue being examined. NATO's strategic thinking, which has always been guided by an acute awareness of imminent threats to the West, is also under scrutiny.
"NATO is unique in that it was born with an enemy in mind," said Col. (res.) Eran Lerman, a former senior IDF intelligence analyst and today the director of the Israel/Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee.
According to Lerman, this fact "creates the foundation for our relationship." Today's enemy - "not Islam the religion but Islamist totalitarianism, a political perversion of the religion" - is the common ground that forms the basis for "future cooperation," he told Tuesday's forum.
According to Hardouin, the question of defining the new threat - and thereby granting NATO a better understanding of its overall strategic role - is under discussion.
While agreeing that the threat is "totalitarian," he rejected the idea that it is connected to religion. "NATO is studying the issue," he promised.
Israeli officials are impatient to see a transformation of NATO into a more global democratic alliance.
"Israel expected NATO to break the regional concept and become a global alliance based on common ideals and threats" but was disappointed, said Col. (res.) Uri Naaman, the Defense Ministry's coordinator for NATO and European defense organizations.
"In such a NATO," Naaman declared at the forum, "Israel could play a central role."
Dr. Oded Eran, Israel's ambassador to both the European Union and NATO, echoed these sentiments.
"NATO has to adopt a formal agenda, responses to proliferation threats and the like," he said, adding, "once this is done, Israel will find it easier" to continue building closer ties with the alliance.
Yet the debate within NATO over its future is far from decided, and it is difficult to tell from public forums how the discussion is progressing.
While agreeing that "we can't remain a purely Euro-centric organization," Hardouin would not elaborate, speaking of the importance of a political conversation over NATO's future.
Yet regardless of the outcome of that debate, Hardouin emphasized, NATO's relationship with Israel must remain strong and unhindered by other political considerations in the Middle East. The central message NATO officials wanted to deliver to Israeli officials and analysts at the forum was that, in Hardouin's words, NATO was "firmly committed to developing this relationship."