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Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the amiable and effective Dutch politician-diplomat, is stepping down as NATO's Secretary-General this summer after almost five years on the job. While in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv Sunday and Monday, Scheffer will meet with the political and military leadership for talks on the Middle East, NATO and Israel's role in both. On the eve of his arrival, he laid out his views in an exclusive interview with Haaretz.

Your visit to Israel happens to coincide with the latest round in the confrontation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Though you take care to insist that no NATO peace-keeping forces should be expected in the Israeli-Palestinian context without a political breakthrough (an agreement between the parties, a mutual appeal to NATO and a UN mandate), the timing could renew interest in such a deployment to monitor or enforce a new cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Given all of your prior caveats, plus the fact that the Palestinian Authority rather than Hamas is Israel's interlocutor, is there still a chance that the idea will be explored in your talks? Why are Hamas and Hezbollah not tagged as terrorist organizations by NATO, for all practical purposes, even if there is no official list of such groups?

"This visit has been long-planned, in the framework of the Mediterranean Dialogue of which your country is a very active player. NATO has never had a discussion about deploying forces to Gaza; NATO is not a party to the Middle East Peace Process. That being said, the December meeting of NATO and MD Foreign Ministers offered a very useful opportunity for an exchange of views on the peace process by the countries directly involved. I think we should not ignore the potential of that format at a certain stage in the future.

"Let me be clear: no one is talking about a NATO role in Gaza, nor do I consider that a possibility. I believe, however, that in the context of a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, should all parties ask for NATO's assistance in implementing such an agreement and should there be a UN mandate, then the North Atlantic Council would certainly discuss it. Personally, I think the answer would be positive. But unfortunately, these conditions are not in place as we speak.

"With regard to the second part of your question, NATO does have an agreed list of terrorist organizations, which is not published, so I will not discuss specific groups. But NATO's record against terrorism is clear and strong. I think the determination that NATO is showing in Afghanistan, to prevent it from becoming once again a hub of global terrorism, is proof of that."

Next April 3-4 NATO, and you personally, will celebrate a double holiday in Strasbourg and Kehl; first your birthday and the next day the Atlantic Alliance's 60th anniversary. What are the strengths and the weaknesses of NATO in this, your last year at the helm, as NATO enters its seventh decade? What enduring legacy do you wish to leave as your own?

"My legacy will be for others to assess. But I remember that, five years ago when I took up my post, the media was frequently asking why NATO was still around, what purpose it still served in the 21st century? Now we get a different question - is NATO able to do all the things we need it to do to help ensure transatlantic security? The relevance question is gone, I believe, because NATO has transformed to address the challenges of today and tomorrow. We have built partnerships around the globe from Japan to Australia to Pakistan and, of course, with the important countries of the Mediterranean and the Gulf. We have established political relations with the UN and the African Union that never existed until now. We've taken in new democracies, soon 28 in total, with more in line.

"Most important, this Alliance is projecting stability in Afghanistan, in Kosovo, in the Mediterranean (with Israeli support), and elsewhere - including fighting pirates off the Somali coast - without in any way diluting our core task to defend NATO member states and populations. Finally, we are looking at playing new roles, as well, in energy security and cyber defence, for example. Bottom line - this is a new NATO, and while I'm not fully satisfied with what's been done in all areas, I strongly believe this Alliance is delivering, and delivering in the right way for the 21st century."

Strasbourg-Kehl will be President-elect Obama's premiere on the NATO stage. What are your expectations from his administration? Have you been satisfied by the Bush policy or is change in U.S. positions vis-a-vis NATO in order?

"The U.S. has always been NATO's largest stakeholder. As NATO Secretary General, I have enjoyed excellent relations with President Bush and his administration. I expect nothing different with President-elect Barack Obama. Let me add that his team has some faces that are well-known and very well respected in NATO."

Some say that NATO seems to be torn between its members on both sides of the Atlantic, with the Americans pushing one way and the Europeans another one (with the Canadians somewhere in the middle). Can NATO effectively survive in this fashion, with the need for consensus among its 26 or 28 or even 30 and more member states?

"The partnership between North America and Europe is not NATO's weakness - it's our strength. There is no other place where these 26 - soon 28 - democracies sit around the same table every day to discuss pressing political and military issues. I firmly believe that consensus is also a strength. It may take longer sometimes to get to a common position, but when we do, we're all in it together and that is very powerful. Look at Afghanistan, where all 26 NATO nations are on the ground, so many years into the mission. These are like-minded nations which share the same values and interests. We just have more voices in the choir singing from the same song sheet."

Israel's status with regard to NATO is not clear. Too many Israelis were excited 14 years ago when the relationship was launched but were disillusioned by the lack of evident progress towards the next level. What future does Israel have with NATO? Should Israel aspire to membership or is the burden on both sides too heavy for such a goal to be realistic?

"I think those who are "disillusioned" as you say need to better understand what our cooperation is and is not. NATO-Israel relations are in the framework of the Mediterranean Dialogue. This has two pillars: political dialogue and practical cooperation. A lot has been achieved since 1994. Both the political and practical dimensions of our Mediterranean Dialogue have been considerably enhanced since the 2004 Istanbul Summit - something which Minister Livni welcomed during the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of NATO and Mediterranean Dialogue countries last December in Brussels.

"In 2005 and in 2006 Israel participated in two NATO military exercises. In addition, the NATO-Israel Agreement on the Security of Information allows us to share intelligence, which is crucial in the fight against terrorism and to achieve military interoperability. In 2006 Israel decided to contribute to NATO's anti-terrorist Operation Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean. All in all, this is a broad menu of cooperation which benefits us all.

"That being said, if we look at the Washington Treaty, NATO's treaty, article 10 states that the parties may invite, by unanimous agreement, only European States to accede to the Treaty. Might I add, Israel has not asked to join NATO.

Israel's bilateral relations with other states seem to impact on their positions regardless of organization, be it NATO, the EU, the UN, etc. What is then the added value of NATO to Israel?

"This is a question that should be asked primarily to Israeli government officials. They are better suited to define the added value to Israel of their relationship with NATO. I would say, for my part, that NATO offers its partners procedures, tools and a culture of sixty years of experience in working together on a multilateral level in the security field.

"I would also mention again, as Minister Livni and other Arab Ministers remarked during the last December MD Foreign Ministers meeting in Brussels, that NATO's MD is the only place where countries from Europe, North America, Israel and six Arab countries can meet together, including countries Israel has no diplomatic relations with.

"Finally, the MD also offers the opportunity to focus on practical areas of cooperation where NATO can offer added value in the security field, in areas such as military inter-operability, the fight against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

The growing political influence of Muslim minorities in certain European countries, including your own Netherlands, threatens to frustrate any chance of upgrading Israel's relations with NATO (and the EU). Do you share this sentiment, and if so, what can be done about it?

"I do not share this view. The fact is that, over the past years, Israel has upgraded its relationship with NATO within the framework of the Mediterranean Dialogue. Israel has been the first country to finalize with NATO, in October 2006, a very detailed individual cooperation program, which had been revised and upgraded last November. This individual cooperation program tailors NATO-Israel cooperation according to the specific needs of your country. The individual cooperation program between Israel and NATO was revised and upgraded last November, after two years, to the great satisfaction of the Israeli government civilian and military authorities.

"Allied armed forces, including all American services and most recently the Air Force of the Czech Republic, have made use of Israeli technology, equipment, lessons learned, and doctrine and training, on their way to Afghanistan. What could be Israel's military contribution to NATO's efforts on both the Operations and Transformation theaters? Do you also need Israeli military presence in your deployments in Asia and the Balkans - an infantry battalion, a helicopter troop, etc., in addition to the Israel Navy missile boat now projected to participate in Operation Active Endeavor?

"In light of its industrial know-how and technological expertise, Israel is a very active partner in the framework of the Mediterranean Dialogue in fostering information exchange and seeking cooperation with NATO on matters of armaments, defence research & technology and air space management. Regular consultations between NATO experts and Israel are being held on air traffic control procedures, improvised explosive devices, ammunition safety, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Cooperation is underway also in the field of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

"So there is quite a substantial cooperation between NATO and Israel under the Mediterranean Dialogue. Israeli contributions to other NATO operations have not been discussed."

Ever since the 2004 Istanbul summit, and as NATO's Afghan mission gained prominence, the Arab-Israeli part of the Middle East appears to have receded in importance to NATO, with the Gulf taking its place. Do you share this view, and if so, what are its implications to Israel?

"I strongly disagree. The Mediterranean Dialogue has not diminished in importance to NATO. On the contrary, a lot has been achieved since the 2004 Istanbul Summit. The political and practical dimensions have gained in regularity, quantity and quality of the activities offered by NATO to our MD partners. The Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, involving at present four Gulf States, are equally important for the Alliance and complement each other. We certainly cannot say that the MD has receded in importance to NATO."

Is a nuclear Iran a common threat to Israel and NATO?

"The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery means is a common threat for NATO, Israel and the other Mediterranean Dialogue countries. At their December meeting, the NATO Foreign Ministers also stated that ballistic missile proliferation poses an increasing threat to the Allies' forces, territory, and populations.

"Allies are concerned about the current developments in Iran on the nuclear issue. At their 2007 Bucharest Summit, NATO Heads of State and Government expressed their deep concern about the proliferation risks of the Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile programs. They called for universal compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and universal adherence to the Additional Protocol to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Safeguard Agreement.

"Unfortunately, Iran has repeatedly demonstrated a disregard for the warnings and efforts of the international community, including the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Allies have called on Iran to fully comply with UNSCRs 1696, 1737, 1747 and 1803, pressing Tehran to halt its nuclear enrichment activities."

Based upon your experience over the last five years, what is the type of personality most suitable to a Secretary-General of an organization as delicately balanced such as NATO? What are your own plans after August - is it back to politics, diplomacy, another international position or a totally different vocation?

"Like any international organisation, NATO is a complicated animal. I would suggest that any Secretary General must have a clear idea of where the Organisation needs to go and the determination to help forge a consensus that doesn't just reflect the lowest-common denominator, but takes the Alliance substantively forward. He or she must also be able to balance and strengthen the political and military sides of the house, both of which are essential to what we do.

"Finally, let me add, he or she had better enjoy airplane food.

"As to my personal plans, thank you for asking. Whatever I do next, I hope it involves a little more time for the family and mountain biking."