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An emissary on behalf of NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer will arrive soon in Ramallah for talks with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and other senior PA officials. Arrangements for the visit were finalized last month in Brussels during a meeting between Shawki Armali, the Palestine Liberation Organization representative in the Belgian capital, and one of Scheffer's aides.

According to reports reaching Jerusalem from informed sources, the purpose of the visit by Scheffer's emissary will be to explore options for institutionalizing ties between the PA and NATO. During an address at NATO's Defense College in Rome on March 18, Scheffer said NATO was reviewing ways to respond to a Palestinian request to enter into a dialogue with the organization, noting "a genuine feeling of cautious optimism, in particular with regard to the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."

Israel has yet to comment on the development, but in previous talks with Scheffer, Israeli officials made it clear that Jerusalem was opposed to any upgrading of the Palestinians' status in NATO. When visiting Israel on February 24, Scheffer heard Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom's objection to the inclusion of the Palestinians in the Mediterranean Dialogue, which has been restricted until now to seven countries - Israel, Jordan, Egypt and four North African states.

A confidential report sent by Scheffer to the 26 permanent representatives of the NATO member states the day after leaving Israel indicates that the secretary general, who also met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, chose to raise the Mediterranean Dialogue issue only with Shalom.

According to Scheffer's report, Shalom "expressed the view that this was premature for two reasons. First, the PA could not be considered a state in the generally accepted sense of the term. Second, there were still uncertainties surrounding the PA's new constructive course of action. He also said that such a development was likely to raise suspicions among the Israelis with regard to NATO's intentions and policies in the region".

Scheffer also reported to the NATO representatives that all his interlocutors in Jerusalem had expressed a desire to enhance Israel's practical and bilateral cooperation with the organization.

Sharon, Shalom and Mofaz suggested establishing "an Israel-NATO workgroup" that would oversee and coordinate security, military and intelligence cooperation between the sides, Scheffer reported, noting that he had rejected the idea because the existing frameworks were sufficient.

Alluding to his conversation with Sharon, Scheffer reported that the prime minister had underlined "that only Israel was responsible for its own security and was not prepared to accept guarantees from anyone."

As for the disengagement from Gaza, Sharon "stressed his determination to see the process through within the established time frame - namely, the summer of 2005.

In this regard, Scheffer reported, Sharon said that "a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict could only be found through a step-by-step approach that allowed the process to be kept well under control. Describing the planned Israeli pullout from Gaza as one such step, he said the process was still in a `pre-road map' phase that could lead to further negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians within the road-map framework - provided the Palestinians take action against the terror organizations."

Scheffer reported that Sharon "also underlined ongoing efforts aimed at coordinating the pullout process with the Palestinians" and "indicated that Israel was prepared to let the Palestinians build a sea port following the Israeli pullout from Gaza, but could not accept the construction of an airport there - at least not for the time being."

The secretary general also reported that Sharon, Mofaz and Ya'alon had expressed concern about arms smuggling operations in the Sinai Desert, noting the need for increased Egyptian cooperation in this regard.

The Israeli officials also asked Scheffer to work toward securing increased international aid for the Palestinian economy, as well as reducing unemployment among Palestinian youth.

Sharon, Shalom, Mofaz and Ya'alon all told Scheffer that Iran "represented the main threat to Israel and regional security, as well as a serious threat to Europe. In particular, they stressed the challenge posed by Tehran's determination to acquire nuclear capabilities."

According to Scheffer's report, Sharon, "while recognizing the importance of economic and political measures" taken by the U.S., the EU and eventually the UN, including sanctions, "said his country was prepared to take all the necessary steps to defend itself against the Iranian nuclear threat."