At first glance, the idea of NATO membership for Israel may sound inconceivable, a proposal hardly worthy of serious consideration. After all, nato signifies the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Israel, in many ways, is far removed from the North Atlantic. Israeli membership in NATO would likely enmesh the alliance in Middle East conflicts, a proposition that few European elites would welcome. Consider the response to the request for peacekeepers for Lebanon. After considerable cajoling and urgent requests by un Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Europe, with nearly two million men and women in uniform, has dispatched only a few thousand troops to the region.
However, during the past few years a growing and influential constituency has emerged that is actively lobbying for Israeli inclusion in the alliance. Policymakers and commentators, ranging from former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar to the editors of the Wall Street Journal, have called on NATO to act quickly in advancing Israel's candidacy for full membership. Proponents of this initiative, who include longtime nato supporters Ronald Asmus, Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino and U.S. Congresspersons Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Robert Wexler (D-FL), cite an array of arguments as to why Israel should urgently be incorporated into NATO. Israeli membership in NATO, they argue, could ameliorate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and ultimately prove key to a successful two-state solution, facilitate Western efforts in the War on Terror, and, most importantly for some, decisively enhance the containment or elimination of Iran's growing wmd program. Some of these points have been reiterated in the proposals advanced in this issue by Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman.
NATO's entry into post-Cold War Middle East and Mediterranean politics commenced in 1994 with the initiation of the alliance's Mediterranean Dialogue linking Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria in a range of security-related discussions. The Mediterranean Dialogue, however, yielded modest results throughout the 1990s.
In the aftermath of 9/11, however, many alliance supporters called on nato to further expand its presence in the region. In June 2004, NATO leaders launched the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative that promised to transform NATO relations with Middle Eastern states from dialogues into partnerships. Brussels intended for closer ties between the alliance and Middle East governments to yield regional-defense reforms, to improve interoperability among military forces and to facilitate multilateral cooperation in combating terrorism and proliferation of wmd.
Of all the states in the region, Israel has established the closest linkages with NATO. Jerusalem is an active member in the alliance's Individual Cooperation Program, and in summer 2006-before the outbreak of hostilities along the Lebanese-Israel border-Israeli naval and air force units participated for the first time in a NATO military exercise, "Cooperation Mako", in the Black Sea.
Israel's trajectory from NATO partnership to possible membership was advanced in October 2004, when NATO's former Supreme Allied Commander U.S. General Joseph Ralston called on the alliance to establish formal ties with Middle East states-comparable to the Partnership for Peace program that facilitated NATO membership for ten East European and Balkan states between 1997 and 2004. Ralston also encouraged NATO to significantly expand its presence in the Middle East by planning an alliance-based peacekeeping mission to be situated along the borders separating Israel and Gaza.
Ralston's vision largely centered on strategic security concerns; others envision grander political ambitions for the alliance. The debate over NATO's role in the Middle East took a decisive turn in February 2005 when two prominent NATO supporters, Ronald Asmus of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and Bruce Jackson, the former head of the U.S. Committee to Expand NATO, published an article in Policy Review that explicitly called on Brussels to consider Israel for full NATO membership. Since early 2005 a growing chorus of voices has endorsed the initiative. This past summer, Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution raised the ante in the pages of Foreign Affairs, calling for a "Global NATO" that would include-as full Article V members-any democratic state propounding to share the alliance's mission, including Australia, Brazil, Japan, India, New Zealand, South Africa and South Korea.
Of course, the enthusiasm of (largely U.S.) boosters for Israeli membership in NATO cannot overcome some serious hurdles. As opposed to previous NATO membership rounds that have featured the inclusion of ten new members since 1999, an Israeli candidacy may well encounter serious opposition. Despite endorsement in some U.S. foreign policy circles, few voices of support can be found beyond Washington.
Serious opposition will likely arise in France and other European capitals, where proposals to extend NATO's membership and new missions have always met resistance. At the height of fighting this past summer between Israel and Hizballah, President Jacques Chirac vehemently opposed deployment of NATO forces to the region. As Chirac informed Le Monde, "As far as France is concerned, it is not NATO's mission to put together such a force . . . Whether we like it or not, nato is perceived as the armed wing of the West in the region, and as a result, in terms of image, nato is not intended for this." It is difficult to conceive of France making a sudden turnaround in the near future by announcing support for Israeli membership in NATO. My own conversations with newly arriving East European diplomats in Brussels reveal little enthusiasm for broadening the alliance's membership to Ukraine and Georgia, let alone states in the Middle East.
Regardless of the opposition, support for Israel's candidacy will materialize if Washington presses the issue, but the mechanics of membership will prove problematic. In the past, Brussels has required aspirants to comply with membership criteria, which specify resolution of pre-existing border disputes with neighboring states and consideration of domestic nationality and minority rights issues. In this light, might NATO waive these criteria for Israel, or will the alliance craft a convoluted "26 + 1" formula affording an Israeli ambassador a seat at NATO's North Atlantic Council (NAC), while limiting Israeli participation to specific policy questions? NATO's inability to manufacture a satisfactory working relationship with Russia's diplomats in Brussels might give pause to those considering a "special relationship" with Israel.
Perhaps the most delicate and significant aspect of the NATO-Israel debate will center upon the continuing viability of the alliance's Article V security guarantee. Most NATO advocates and reformers believe the alliance's long term viability is directly linked to the retention of that key clause in the Washington treaty. And yet genuine commitment to that pledge is in serious question as the contentious debate at NATO Headquarters in February 2003 illuminated. With France and other states refusing to consider Turkish security requests as war with Iraq loomed three years ago, one questions how the alliance would respond were Jerusalem to urgently call for support at some point in the future. Given the near certainty that Israel will be at war in the future with at least one of its neighbors, what is the likelihood that even half of NATO's existing members would seriously aid the Jewish state? If Article V becomes optional, and NATO transitions from a standing military alliance into a coalition-of-the-willing, the alliance's credibility and importance will be seriously diminished.
With NATO's security guarantee under a growing cloud, NATO supporters will be hard-pressed to sell the alliance to the Israelis. Certainly the most basic question for Jerusalem is precisely how membership in NATO would enhance Israeli security. For nearly sixty years Israel has eschewed entangling relations with other states-save the United States-and international organizations that might impede Israeli leaders in their decision-making calculations. While Israeli military elites have expressed satisfaction with their limited ties to the alliance, these ties, for the moment, are viewed as useful because the nato workshops and exercises enhance Israeli intelligence and understanding of NATO capabilities. There is little indication that Israeli military officials believe membership in NATO will significantly abate the fundamental threats to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)-particularly if one takes into account the historic animosity between Israel and many European governments, and the European Union's (EU) frequent condemnation of Israeli actions. It is difficult to imagine why Israel would join an organization featuring members who are highly critical of its foreign and domestic policies.
Few other nations in the world confront such serious threats to security and survival as does Israel. Security debates within Israel are always at the forefront of political debate and are grounded in frank and realistic assessments. From this vantage, it is difficult to imagine why Israeli leaders would entertain joining a multinational military alliance presently in manifest decline. As I have argued elsewhere,1 despite 15 years of concerted internal reforms, collaborative missions, membership enlargement and public pronouncements of allied unity, NATO's days as a coherent, effectively functioning military alliance are waning. The alliance has spent 15 years endeavoring to identify a new raison d'être, but no unifying set of priorities has surfaced. Though dangers to Western security have emerged-the rise of Al-Qaeda arguably being the most significant-these threats have not unified NATO.Essay Types: Essay