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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Visiting NATO official Patrick Hardouin on Tuesday brushed aside calls by Israelis, including Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu, for his organization to focus more on the fight against militant Islamic regimes and a nuclear Iran. He also side-stepped requests by Israelis to upgrade the country's ties with NATO by making it a formal strategic partner.
"Of course [a nuclear] Iran is a major concern, but NATO does not have any mandate to deal with Iran," Hardouin told the audience at the second annual NATO-Israel Symposium sponsored by the IDC Herzliya, the Atlantic Forum of Israel and NATO.
Hardouin told The Jerusalem Post he welcomed the increased ties between Israel and NATO within the framework of the Individual Cooperation Program, which was signed a year ago, but did not believe the time was ripe to upgrade its status to full partner.
"We are not discussing that now," Hardouin told the Post. Nor, he said, did he understand fully what Israel had to gain at this time from becoming a full strategic partner under a program offered to other countries outside the Mediterranean. NATO already considered Israel as a "partner" in this region even if it was not included in the formal strategic partnership program, he added.
NATO Deputy Secretary-General Claudio Bisogniero, who concluded a two-day visit to Israel on Tuesday, referred to Israel as a partner in his speech at the conference Monday night.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Monday night called for NATO to recognize Israel as a full strategic partner.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu made a similar request, saying, "We should define a goal of having Israel become a full strategic partner by 2010." He said his approach differed from that of Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman, who in the past has called for full NATO membership. Lieberman was out of the country while the conference was in session.
While the issue of membership was worth exploring, Netanyahu said, it also had some hitches that could prevent Israel from acting independently in military situations.
At this time, he said, formal strategic partnership was a "wise" middle-of-the-road approach to NATO.
Netanyahu said such a partnership was justified by the common threats Israel and the member countries of NATO faced from militant Islamic regimes and a nuclear Iran. Turning to Bisogniero, who was in the audience, he urged NATO to get more involved in both these struggles, saying, "Every effort must be made to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons."
"If Iran would have atomic bombs, we can be sure they would use them in ways that no nuclear power has sought to do," he added.
Netanyahu stressed that it was primarily the West, not Israel, that was threatened.
"We could disappear from the face of the earth; it wouldn't make an iota of difference to al-Qaida, to Iran, to any of them," he said. "We are you. You're the middle-sized Satan, America's the big one, we're the little Satan. We just happen to be the closest by."
But Hardouin told the Post none of the member countries of NATO had asked the organization to focus on Iran. That includes the United States, he said. "We're deeply concerned, but we do not discuss how we would attack Iran," he said.
During some four hours of panel discussion, Hardouin said NATO, whose primary goal had initially been to safeguard the West against the former Soviet Union, had only put the Middle East on its radar screen in the early 1990s.
NATO's energies now, he said, were taken up by the struggle in Afghanistan, where it has stationed some 40,000 troops.
The organization, Hardouin said, was looking to form alliances in the Middle East, such as those it has with Israel, but was not looking to become a "global cop." NATO had to be careful not to overtax its resources, which would endanger the European and North Atlantic communities it protects, he said.
Itamar Yaar of Israel's National Security Council for Defense Policy questioned whether NATO membership was worth it for Israel.
"We need to ask ourselves if we would like to join an organization whose main focus is North America and Europe," he said.
Rafael Bardaji, an adviser to former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, accused NATO of being an organization from the 1950s that was using methodology from the 1990s to fight a 21st century battle.
Israel was so important in the fight against terrorism, he said, that "NATO should be begging Israel to become a member."
Still, a number of participants, including former Israeli ambassador to the European Union Oded Eran, spoke in support of the current relationship with NATO, under the Individual Cooperation Program. Eran said he had come to believe that it was best for Israel to first exploit that relationship before moving on to the more advance stage of partnership or membership.
Amos Gilad, who heads the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Military Bureau, disputed any attempt to paint NATO-Israel ties in a positive light.
"The ICP [Individual Cooperation Program] is very weak," he said, and there is "no intelligence cooperation" between Israel and NATO. There is a lot of talk, but little concrete results, he added.
"We want any opportunity to improve our relationship," Gilad said. "With every initiative, the frustration is bigger than the hope."
But Czech Republic Ambassador to Israel Michael Zantovsky, who is also the NATO representative here, assured the audience that NATO was indeed focused on the Middle East and Israel.
At some future point, he said, if economic sanctions totally fail, NATO would become part of the discussion regarding Iran.
If the Annapolis talks between Israel and the Palestinians scheduled for November lead to an agreement, Zantovsky said, it would require the support of the entire international community.
"I cannot imagine how NATO could stand aside," he said.