NATO Deputy Secretary-General Claudio Bisogniero arrived in Israel for a two-day visit on Sunday, three weeks after taking up his new post.
"It is very important that he is coming here shortly after his appointment," said Tommy Steiner, executive secretary of the Atlantic Forum of Israel, which helped organize the visit.
Bisogniero's trip marks the first anniversary of Israel's Individual Cooperation Program with NATO, designed to enhance military, technical and political cooperation.
Israel was the first Middle Eastern country to sign such an agreement. It was followed by Egypt, which earlier this month also entered into an Individual Cooperation Program with the Western alliance.
Bisogniero and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni are set to address the second annual NATO Israel Symposium at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya on Monday night, to be followed the next day by a seminar on NATO's role in the Middle East.
The visit and the conference were some of the many signs of the growing ties between Israel and NATO, Steiner and the forum's chairman, Uzi Arad, told The Jerusalem Post Sunday. Last April, for example, as part of their fight against terrorism, Israel and NATO held joint naval exercises off Eilat.
"There is an evolving process of Israel and NATO drawing together," said Arad.
Still, both he and Steiner said they would like to see the relationship upgraded to that of partners by the time NATO celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2009. NATO has 26 members and some 30 partners, according to Steiner.
Although Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman has called for Israel to become a full-fledged member, neither Arad or Steiner believe this is currently feasible.
Arad said he understood that there had also been calls for Israel to join NATO from a number of United States presidential candidates, including former North Carolina Democratic Sen. John Edwards and ex-New York Republican mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar has similarly advocated Israeli membership, and earlier this year the National Security Council drafted a position paper on the matter.
But earlier this month, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said membership was not "for today or for tomorrow."
Arad said he was of the opinion that membership would be premature at this stage.
"Israel fears that full membership would limit Israel's freedom of actions and some NATO members would not like to extend membership before there is a comprehensive peace in the Middle East," Arad said. But in lieu of membership, partnership was feasible, he said, adding that Israel was a natural ally of Western countries and belonged within NATO.
There have been many visits and cooperative ventures between the two parties. A delegation from the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee visited NATO headquarters in Brussels earlier this month and last month Livni met with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in New York.
The relationship was an evolutionary one, Livni said, adding, "This is not a shotgun marriage."
"NATO is constantly transforming itself," Arad said. "As it looks at its role outside of Europe and in the Middle East, it looks into the prospect of closer Israel-NATO relations."
Bisogniero arrived after a brief trip to Jordan. The Italian-born diplomat was previously posted to NATO, the United Nations and the US before returning to NATO in 1999.