Israel explores closer link to NATO, even membershipBERLIN Israel is angling for a much closer relationship with NATO and is even weighing the long-term possibility of trying to join the U.S.-led military alliance, according to Israeli diplomats and NATO officials.
The push by Israel comes at a sensitive time for NATO, which is seeking to establish stronger security and political ties in North Africa and the Middle East.
As NATO explores a region in the throes of immense and unpredictable change, military experts said the alliance would have to tread carefully because some Middle Eastern countries see the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as an extension of U.S. military power.
"In some Arab countries, Egypt for one, NATO is regarded with deep suspicion," said Thomas Papenroth, defense expert at the German Institute for International Policy and Security. "The alliance has to be very careful not to give the impression it is on the same side as the U.S., such as wanting regime change, or that it favors Israel over other countries."
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who last week became the first NATO secretary general to visit Israel, carefully sidestepped questions over the possibility that Israel would join the alliance.
"We must make sure, given the sensitivities in the region, to take account of the overall even-handedness," he told the newspaper Haaretz.
Israel, nevertheless, is openly asking what kind of relationship it wants with NATO.
"There is a process under way in which the Israeli government and NATO officials are jointly probing and examining the potential for deepening the partnership," said Uzi Arad, head of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel.
"No one is yet talking about membership," said Arad, also an adviser to the Security and Armed Forces Committee of the Israeli Parliament. "Membership is reserved for future circumstances."
"Under the right circumstances," he added, "it would be obscene if the Jewish state was treated differently" from other members or applicants.
NATO officials confirmed that Israel had stepped up its involvement in the 26-member alliance and had submitted an ambitious set of proposals last month aimed at closer cooperation.
Oded Eran, Israel's ambassador to the European Union, is closely involved in the NATO negotiations.
"The very detailed document for upgrading relations with NATO had included cooperation on counterterrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, military training, logistics and development of weapons systems," he said in an interview.
"It's a step-by-step process," Eran said. "For us, the issue is the abnormal and absurd situation we find ourselves in.
"We are in the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But Israel does not belong to any regional or military organizations. Entering NATO would create a kind of psychological insurance policy."
Were it to join NATO, Israel would have the automatic right under Article 5 of the alliance's treaty to the security guarantee that a member state that came under attack would be assisted by other members if it sought such assistance.
When asked if all members would extend Article 5 to Israel, a senior NATO diplomat who asked not to be named said: "I don't want to think about the possibility. It could create upheaval in NATO and in the region."
Israelis are ambiguous about wanting that security guarantee.
"Of course NATO membership means Article 5, but we don't need it," Arad said. "But nor would we pay a special price to become a member any different from any other member.
"The point is there is an evolution in Israeli thinking for reducing our propensity for self-reliance."
In the meantime, lobbyists in Washington and Brussels have started urging members of Congress to encourage NATO to consider admitting Israel and not wait until there is a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement.
"What we are addressing is an upgraded strategic relationship between Israel and Euro-Atlantic institutions like NATO and the EU that would lead to increasingly closer ties and could include eventual membership," Ronald Asmus, executive director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States Trans-Atlantic Center in Brussels, said.
NATO started improving its relations with the region in June after the Istanbul summit meeting, where it upgraded its Mediterranean Dialogue, which was established a decade ago but which had has little substance.
In practice, NATO can deal individually or as a group with Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, Mauritania and Israel.
"Within this framework of the Mediterranean Dialogue, Israel has charged ahead," said James Appathurai, NATO's spokesman. "It means we can have a dialogue with all the countries, individually or as a group. The slowest cannot hold up the convoy."
The cooperation focuses on practical issues like joint naval exercises, counterterrorism and military reform. Jordan, Algeria, Mauritania and more recently Morocco have also stepped up their cooperation with NATO and have signed a special security agreement with the alliance for the protection of classified information, as has Israel. The agreement also allows classified information to be shared among the signatories.
Egypt and Tunisia have so far declined to sign the document, which security experts said reflected suspicions by Cairo and Tunis over NATO's intentions in the region.