In 2004, defense officials got an interesting call from NATO headquarters in Brussels. Under pressure from the Palestinians, the Western military alliance was looking into the possibility of sending peacekeeping forces to the West Bank to prevent violence. Fearing restrictions on its operational freedom, the IDF dismissed the idea, on the grounds that it would be dangerous for foreign soldiers to deploy, since they might get caught in the crossfire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian terrorists. Following this exchange, NATO formulated its official policy vis-Ã -vis Israel - a policy which is still in effect: that it will not deploy here until the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved through a peace agreement. Four years later, with the Palestinians split between Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip and Fatah rule in the West Bank, NATO's deployment is back on the table. This time it is even being pushed by high-ranking Israeli officials, such as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Avigdor Lieberman, who recently stepped down as minister of strategic affairs. As The Jerusalem Post reported this week, newly-appointed US security envoy Gen. James Jones has been floating the idea of deploying a NATO or similar multinational force in the West Bank during the period following an Israeli withdrawal and before the Palestinian Authority can take over full security control. THEN THERE is Gaza. With senior IDF officers pushing for a large-scale operation to neutralize the Kassam threat, some defense and diplomatic officials believe that the deployment of a multinational force could be Israel's exit strategy, as it was from south Lebanon in the summer of 2006, after the Second Lebanon War. If Livni's dream comes true, Israel could soon find itself surrounded by international soldiers on its northern border in Lebanon, southern border in Gaza and to the east in the West Bank. The chances of this happening are deemed unlikely. Still, officials say, if Jones really is looking into that possibility, there might be something to it. Jones was, after all, the commander of NATO until last year - and no one knows the political and logistical difficulties involved in getting countries to contribute to international operations better than he. The primary concern for the IDF is the loss of operational freedom that such a deployment would entail. This, even though the government would likely demand that the force have a strong mandate and be able to use force to curb terrorism, in contrast to UNIFIL in Lebanon, which has not done much to stop Hizbullah's postwar rearmament. "Today we can go anywhere we want inside the West Bank to break up terror infrastructure," said a senior defense official who has worked on these initiatives. "If there is a foreign force in the West Bank or even in Gaza, it would limit what we can and cannot do." RELATIONS WITH NATO have been deepening in recent years. Israel was the first member of the Mediterranean Dialogue (others include Algeria, Morocco, Egypt and Jordan) to sign an Individual Cooperation Program (ICP) with NATO last year. It regularly participates in NATO workshops and exercises, and has hosted a number of conferences with the alliance on issues of intelligence, logistics and military technology. Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi visited NATO headquarters in November, and former defense minister Amir Peretz paid a similar visit there while in office. In the Foreign and Defense Ministries there are a number of officials in charge of the bilateral talks with NATO - including the head of the Diplomatic-Security Bureau, Amos Gilad; head of IDF Planning, Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan; and Col. (res.) Uri Na'aman. Traditionally, NATO's official position has been that it would not consider deploying troops here until three conditions were met: the signing of a full peace agreement; a UN mandate; and the request of all parties involved, in this case not just Israel and the PA, but also Hamas. Furthermore, Dr. Uzi Arad, director of the Institute for Policy and Strategy and chairman of the Atlantic Forum of Israel, said this week that it was unlikely NATO would be capable of finding countries willing to send troops here. "NATO is in a crisis in Afghanistan, without forces or a budget," he said. "To think that it will have thousands of soldiers to send to another place in the Middle East is out of context." On the other hand, with NATO searching for a new reason for existence, it might find one in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Established in 1949 - in support of the North Atlantic Treaty signed in response to the Soviet threat - NATO's declared mission has always been to fight against the communist bloc in Eastern Europe and keep the West safe. But following the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989, it lost its significance, and began looking for new functions - or, more importantly, relevance. The 9/11 attacks not only brought terrorism to the forefront of the US agenda and put the Middle East on the map, but also gave the 26-member alliance the reason for existence it was looking for. As a matter of fact, the only time NATO's famous Article 5 - which calls on NATO countries to mobilize on behalf of a member under attack - was activated was following the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.