NATO Chief: We Could Send Troops Once Treaty Is Signed

NATO would consider stationing peacekeeping troops here to facilitate the peace process only if an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty was signed, both sides requested a NATO presence, and the UN Security Council endorsed the request, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in an interview with Haaretz Wednesday.

"The peace process as such is not currently on the NATO agenda," Scheffer said, speaking during the first official visit by a NATO secretary general to Israel. "The Allies believe that the lead for that process rests with the Quartet... But I believe that should one day the two parties in conflict come to an agreement, and should they request some sort of NATO assistance to help them achieve the objectives of that agreement, with a UN mandate, then NATO would certainly need to discuss such a request."

Following his arrival in Israel Wednesday night, Scheffer will meet Thursday with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon. On Thursday night he will lecture at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, and then return to NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Sources say that Scheffer, in contrast to his personal inclinations, has been forced in recent weeks to "dilute" the dimensions of the planned upgrade in relations between NATO and Israel. The North Atlantic Council, comprised of the ambassadors of NATO's 26 member states, initially reacted positively to a proposal submitted by Israel's ambassador to the European Union, Oded Eran, but under pressure from France, Belgium and Britain, later adopted a cooler stance. Such a position calls for emphasizing the practical aspects of NATO's cooperation with Israel while refraining from any symbolic expression of willingness to move more quickly toward closer relations with Israel than toward Arab states, such as Egypt, which currently are not interested in closer relations.

"Allies attach the greatest importance to two principles guiding our Mediterranean Dialogue" with Israel and six Muslim states, Scheffer explained. "The first one is the respect for each partner's specificity. Each participant should be in a position to move its bilateral relation with NATO at its own rhythm. This is also true, of course, for Israel, with whom we are currently discussing an individual action program. In doing so, however, and this is the second principle, we must make sure, given the sensitivities in the region, to keep everybody on board in this dialogue and to take account of the overall even-handedness of the process at large."

Scheffer denied this policy grants Egypt or any other state a veto over NATO's relations with Israel, but stressed that progress in the peace process would increase Israel-NATO cooperation opportunities.

He also stressed that the Mediterranean Dialogue is not "a first step to a future membership" in NATO. Nevertheless, NATO does want to work toward "an increased political and practical relation" with Israel, and "to deepen the political dimension" of the dialogue. Among the areas of "practical" cooperation Scheffer listed are intelligence, border security, naval patrols and the fight against arms smuggling.