Israel in NATO?

Israel in NATO?

Mini Teaser: Such a proposal brings as many complications as it does benefits.

by Author(s): Richard Rupp

For some, Israel's membership in nato would facilitate fulfillment of an array of goals, including the amelioration of Arab-Israeli conflicts, spreading democracy to other states in the Middle East and proving that nato can be transformed into a global security organization, which would effectively rebut those who argue that the alliance is in decline. For others, the urgency in extending NATO membership to Israel has little to do with grand hopes for regional peace and cooperation, but everything to do with Iran.

The possibility of direct confrontation between Western states and Iran over Tehran's clear intent to acquire deliverable nuclear weapons grows with each passing month. Most analysts now recognize that diplomatic and economic options are preferable to "surgical" air strikes or all-out invasion. Still, military measures-all highly problematic-are on the table. To enhance the credibility of the West's (read: Washington's) containment and deterrent threats, a number of analysts now contend that adding Israel to nato's roster would convince Tehran that the West is serious about the use of military force. Unlike most East European entrants, Israel is an advanced military power with capabilities that Tehran cannot ignore. In a different venue, John Hulsman and Nile Gardiner argued earlier this year, "The West has one ace left to play before a final showdown looms. Extending nato membership to Israel could convince Iran's Mullahs that developing a nuclear capability is not in their interest."2

Hulsman, Gardiner and others are keen to avoid a military confrontation but assert the incorporation of Israel into nato will unmistakably clear the West's determination to respond with potentially regime-ending force if Tehran proceeds with its current policies. They note, "Israeli accession to nato would explicitly extend the Western alliance's nuclear deterrent to cover Tel Aviv and Jerusalem." The editors of the Wall Street Journal speculate that, "If Israel were part of NATO, the saner elements in Tehran would at least have to worry about the collective response of the West."

There is no question that the Iranian nuclear threat must be effectively addressed; both nato members and Israel have a common vital interest in dealing with the growing danger. However, it remains unclear how Israeli membership in nato would contribute to managing this threat. Even if NATO and Israel had time to design a structure for military cooperation centered on the Iranian threat, NATO's past experience with such initiatives is not impressive. Although the alliance has devoted considerable effort to addressing the failings in Bosnia during the early 1990s and the 1999 Kosovo operation, the current mission in Afghanistan reveals that the alliance continues to be plagued by command and control issues and the provision of basic logistical support.

Indeed, one could predict severe difficulties that could prevent effective NATO-Israeli action against Iran. In the past, NATO countries have had a track record of resisting Israeli military operations in conjunction with Western missions. In 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, the United States not only kept Israel out of the coalition but restrained Israel from striking Iraq after Scud missiles fell on Israeli cities, fearing the Israeli action would break up the coalition by driving the Arab members out. The editors of the Wall Street Journal contend that Tehran might temper its behavior if confronted by a "collective response" from the West. Current NATO missions in Afghanistan and Iraq reveal little consensus among member-states. It strains credulity to believe that Israel could bring greater consensus to this international organization.

We have to differentiate between nato's policy pronouncements and the real state of affairs. The only state with military resources capable of global action-including seriously engaging the Iranians-is the United States; despite years of promised defense reforms, European militaries have not been equipped for significant operations beyond the continent. NATO unanimity is more for show; it is not a tight alliance. Israel is presently in possession of security commitments from the United States if Iran threatens to strike. Why would Israel risk tampering with that commitment by potentially subjecting issues of national survival to nato's decision-making apparatus, featuring 26 states, many of which have long been more critical of Israel than its neighbors? Finally, what nuclear capabilities could France or Great Britain offer Israel that are not already in the hands of Israeli leaders?

Israel differs from a Baltic or East European state looking for an outside alliance for help. The interests and needs that propelled East European and Baltic states to seek NATO membership bear little resemblance to Israel's strategic security concerns. Israeli membership in NATO is favored and driven by U.S. activists and some European supporters. Israelis, viewing an overcommitted alliance in decline, rightly doubt whether a Jewish ambassador will be joining the North Atlantic Council in the foreseeable future.

These reservations not withstanding, individuals advocating NATO expansion into the Middle East are to be acknowledged for taking the debate to a new level. Innovative proposals and creative thinking are desperately needed before the region's problems lead to cataclysmic warfare. Sadly, Israeli membership in NATO might well exacerbate those problems.

Richard Rupp is associate professor and acting head of the Department of History and Political Science at Purdue University Calumet and author of the recently released book, NATO after 9/11: An Alliance in Continuing Decline (2006).

1 Richard E. Rupp, NATO after 9/11: An Alliance in Continuing Decline (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

2 John Hulsman and Nile Gardiner, "Confounding the Mullahs of Iran: It's Time for Israel to Join NATO", (Washington: The Heritage Federation, January 24, 2006, WebMemo #966).

Essay Types: Essay