Israeli NATO cooperation would be better if there were progress in the Middle East peace process, the organization's Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero said on Monday night.
Still, he said, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not limit that relationship, which has grown stronger in the last year.
"NATO and Israel are doing a lot together. There are excellent opportunities for us to deepen that cooperation further," said Bisogniero. He spoke to an audience of diplomats at a dinner hosted by the IDC Herzliya as part of the Second Annual NATO-Israel Symposium.
"We in NATO have always made clear - and will continue to underline - that the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be used as an alibi to preclude closer relations," said Bisogniero, who became deputy secretary general only this month.
Out of all the Middle East countries that participate as Israel does in NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue, "Israel occupies a special place" and has been the most active participant, said Bisogniero.
In her speech to the IDC on Monday night, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said she would like to see the ties upgraded and added that, "Israel seeks a formal partnership relationship with NATO."
In spite of a feeling among Israelis that NATO has not focused enough on the threat of a nuclear Iran, Bisogniero assured the audience that his organization was indeed worried.
"A nuclear-armed Iran would deal a major blow to the international non-proliferation regime and could also produce a 'domino effect' throughout the Middle East, as other states may feel compelled to develop nuclear technology as well," said Bisogniero.
He added, "We must not underestimate the risk that terrorist groups may gain access to such weapons of mass destruction."
He said that NATO had to be prepared to tackle these problems. "We cannot afford to wait for these challenges to come to us. That may mean sending our forces far away from our traditional European borders."
Still, sources in NATO have said there were no plans yet to send the organization's troops to the Middle East.
On a separate note, Livni in her speech at the IDC took the opportunity to address issues relating to the upcoming Annapolis conference in the US regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
To help that process, she said, "The Arab and Muslim world must adopt any decision that the Palestinians accept, and not dictate the results."
She added that they should participate unconditionally at the Annapolis conference. Livni also called on other Arab states to take steps to normalize relations with Israel rather than wait until the end of the conflict.
Even as she spoke of the common bond between Israel and the moderate Fatah Palestinian leadership, she expressed skepticism about its enforcement abilities.
"There is no disputing the fact that there is a gap between the will of the pragmatic Palestinian leaders and their ability to execute," said Livni.
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