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ISTANBUL - NATO leaders have decided to upgrade relations with seven countries in the "Mediterranean dialogue" including Israel, in a relationship defined as a "partnership." The "partnership" with Israel, Jordan, Egypt and other countries in the region will enable these states to strengthen military relations with NATO, and ensure that invitations are sent to foreign ministers and defense ministers, along with top military figures, to NATO meetings.

The official version of the decision reached by heads of the NATO states will be released tomorrow, in a statement summarizing the Istanbul Summit. As one of the decision's tangible results, an invitation will be issued to Israel's navy to take part in operations designed to prevent the smuggling of weapons and materials used in the production of weapons of mass destruction.

NATO naval vessels and planes are taking part in these Mediterranean Sea operations, checking suspicious seacraft and stopping illegal activities. Anti-terror equipment, as well as gear used to cope with natural disasters and the results of terror attacks, will be made available to countries involved in this Mediterranean Dialogue partnership framework.

This upgrading of relations represents another step toward making the Middle East and Central Asia the central theater of NATO operations.

The leading priority in NATO operations in this arena is the conferral of assistance to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's government. Karzai, a guest at the Istanbul Summit, wants NATO leaders to amplify reconstruction work in districts outside of Kabul, in northern and western Afghanistan.

The second-highest NATO priority is the conferral of assistance to the new government in Baghdad. The expansion of NATO's activity in other areas of the Middle East, including the Israel-Arab conflict, is a third-level priority in NATO's agenda.

While the new status resembles the "Partnership for Peace" designation given to Warsaw Pact countries during the Cold War (most of which subsequently joined NATO), this new classification will not create a special group framework for partnership in the Middle East. Military relations will be conducted on a unilateral basis, meaning that NATO will work with Israel individually, and with each of the other six states separately.

This unilateral approach has been devised in response to objections forwarded by Egypt, which suspects that NATO's upgraded activity in the Middle East is a ploy designed to promote democratic reform in Arab states.

The declaration of the partnership initiative in the Mediterranean region reflects increased NATO readiness to engage in military operations in the region, subject to the agreement of the UN Security Council, or to requests being submitted by local countries. Leaders at the Istanbul Summit declared yesterday that the level of NATO training exercises has improved, as has command structures and control of air, land and sea "rapid response forces."