unifil lebanon 298 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
In 1998, as fighting bitterly raged between Serbian forces and the Albanian Kosovars, the Kosovo conflict seemed like one of those intractable nationalistic-ethnic conflicts that could rage for decades with no clear-cut conclusion or cessation of hostilities. Few would have predicated that a decade later that once-forsaken corner of the former Republic of Yugoslavia would be able to declare its independence in relatively peaceful conditions.
Surely, that would not have been the case if NATO had not decisively intervened the year after, instituting a bombing campaign against Serbian targets in order to force the introduction of a peacekeeping force into Kosovo to halt the conflict. NATO's intervention was, and remains, controversial, and fierce arguments still rage about the legality, morality and efficiency of its operations.
But seen in retrospect from 2008, its intervention was absolutely necessary to put out the last raging fire in the Yugoslavian wars, and the presence of NATO troops on the ground in Kosovo has been crucial in keeping the peace there in subsequent years.
It's presumably by pure coincidence that at the same time Kosovo was finally declaring an independence which NATO was so crucial in helping it achieve, US Special Envoy to the region Gen. James Jones was, according to a report in Wednesday's Jerusalem Post, reviewing the feasibility of deploying a NATO force in the West Bank as a way to ease IDF security concerns and facilitate an Israeli withdrawal from the area within the coming years.
The West Bank is, of course, not Kosovo - although both have majority Muslim populations, they are more different than similar.
Nor does the larger political or security situation here in any way resemble the tumultuous breakup of Yugoslavia that led NATO into such an active role there.
Yet it is unlikely that anyone would even think NATO was ready to take on a peacekeeping role in this troubled corner of the Mediterranean, outside of Europe's borders, without that organization's ultimately successful efforts (after many devastating setbacks) in Kosovo and elsewhere in the Balkans.
And many still don't. Israeli policy has traditionally opposed any form of international military presence in the territories, even one comprised of troops from its closest North American and European allies. This is out of concern over a potential challenge to its sovereignty in still-disputed areas; skepticism that such a force would work to effectively contain Palestinian terrorism; and fear that they might be caught in a crossfire between Israeli forces and those terrorists.
Those concerns are still deeply felt within the Israeli security establishment, reportedly including Defense Minister Ehud Barak. But other serious players in the government are now looking more favorably at the prospect of NATO troops, or some other kind of international forces, being deployed in the territories.
Most prominent is Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who alluded to the possibility in a speech to NATO ministers in Brussels two months ago, saying, "We are now in a process that is expected to strengthen the capabilities of the Palestinian Authority - so they would fight terror instead of Israel. However, one cannot exclude the possibility that we will need to discuss what can be the role of NATO in supporting the need for a change, a real change, on the ground."
European Union Middle East envoy Marc Otte confirmed to the Post at the same time that there was "definitely more interest than in the past" for the idea from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. "After the [Second] Lebanon War, the sides see the merit in an international security presence," Otte said, referring to the largely European multination international force in southern Lebanon. But he cautioned that "we are a long way away from implementation."
The resistance to that implementation is likely to come now just as much - if not more - from the European nations that would have to supply the boots on the ground.
It is hardly surprising that the one European leader who has spoken positively about the concept so far is France's new headstrong president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who commented in December that Paris would support the "deployment, when the time and conditions are right, of an international force to assist the Palestinian security services."
But just when Washington is putting tremendous pressure on NATO member-states to increase their troops levels in support of the strained military effort in Afghanistan, it hardly seems the ideal period for Jones to be floating the idea of an additional NATO commitment to be deployed on this soil in the near future.
Yet as events unfold here in the coming months, the logic of an international force acting not as a buffer between IDF troops and the Palestinian Authority security forces, but as a means of reinforcing the latter so they can effectively maintain security control over areas already under its administrative authority, may seem ever more compelling.
This will be especially so if the IDF is forced to launch a major operation into Gaza during the next years to halt the Kassam attacks and degrade Hamas's growing military capability. The only viable "exit strategy" at this time that could possibly prevent Hamas simply rebuilding its forces over time and resuming the rocket strikes would be a reintroduction of PA forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas into Gaza, backed by a NATO or other multinational force that would provide it with the muscle needed to contain the radical Islamists that took control there last summer.
Putting their troops in yet another potential combat zone is surely a prospect that European leaders would prefer to avoid altogether. Yet after decades of claiming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a root source of instability in this region - and solving it a major priority on their foreign policy agendas - "hypocritical" would probably be the most polite word to describe unwillingness on their part to contribute militarily to a possible solution.
NATO may never get that call, either out of a lack of need or reluctance to accept its help, or simply a failure to even come close to the point in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process where bringing in foreign troops is feasible. But as the Kosovo experience demonstrated, in this day and age you usually don't get the peace - or the ability to keep it - without bringing in the peacekeepers.