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Brussels - NATO will not serve as an international buffer force between Israel and the future Palestinian state, and Israel is not a candidate to join the international military alliance, NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson told reporters on Wednesday.

He said he does not expect to see NATO in any role in the Middle East peace process and that NATO's relations with Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the four Maghreb countries will be upgraded, but will remain far from membership status.

NATO foreign ministers, due to issue a joint statement at the end of their current meeting, will include an invitation in that statement to senior officials from those countries to a meeting with NATO leaders in June 2004 in Istanbul. Apparently, the invitation will go to the foreign ministers, not the heads of the governments of Israel and the Arab countries.

Robertson, who will be leaving office at the end of this month, said that in the future, NATO countries - there are 19 until the Istanbul conference and 26 after it - will consider involvement in the Middle East political process but no such involvement is currently being considered.

NATO's efforts are aimed at stabilizing crises and increasing security, he said, and lately it has taken on an enormous responsibility by placing forces in Afghanistan, where the government sought help in policing areas outside the Kabul area.

There is also consideration of increasing NATO involvement in Iraq, beyond the deployment of a Polish contingent, but NATO commanders prefer to focus on Afghanistan and not split the forces, lest there be two failures instead of one success.

Therefore, there is no chance of NATO becoming involved in a third arena, such as Israel-Palestine, officials in Brussels say.