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According to the Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who is scheduled to visit Israel for high-level talks Sunday, "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 2008 meeting in Brussels of NATO and Mediterranean Dialogue Foreign Ministers, in which Tzipi Livni took part, 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," Scheffer told Haaretz in an exclusive interview, which will be published in full in Sunday's edition.

The prospect of Israel's membership in NATO is virtually impossible, Scheffer said.

In the Washington Treaty which governs NATO, "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," Scheffer said.

While in Israel, Scheffer will meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.

"[This visit] has been long-planned, in the framework of the Mediterranean Dialogue of which your country is a very active player," Scheffer said. "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." Scheffer pointed out that NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue is the only common meeting place for countries from Europe, North America, Israel and six Arab countries.

Contrary to United States and European Union practice, Hamas is not designated as a terrorist organization by NATO.

"NATO does have an agreed list of terrorist organizations, which is not public, so I will not discuss specific groups,' he said. "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."

Asked whether a nuclear Iran is a common threat to Israel and NATO, Scheffer said, "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 Allies' forces, territory, and populations. Allies are concerned about the current developments in Iran on the nuclear issue [and] expressed their deep concern about the proliferation risks of the Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile programs. 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."

Scheffer hailed Israel's contribution to NATO's exercises and the maritime counter-terrorism Operation Active Endeavor, as well as the interchange between NATO and Israel on other defense related topics.

"Regular consultations between NATO experts and Israel are being held on air traffic control procedures, improvised explosive devices, ammunition safety, and weapons of mass destruction proliferation," he said. "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 contribution to other NATO operations has not been discussed."