NATO to Haaretz: We Won't Play Role in Mideast Peace Process

North Atlantic Treaty Organization Deputy Sec. General in interview to Haaretz: Worried over Iran nukes.

Deputy Secretary General of NATO, Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero, has never been an ambassador in the traditional sense. Rather, ambassador is the title he holds in the Italian foreign service, where he advanced from a position as a U.S. expert and diplomat to NATO and the United Nations. Two years ago, NATO appointed him deputy secretary general.

During his visit in Israel this past week, Bisogniero met with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, Deputy Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, members of the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee as well as members of the Foreign Ministry and the defense establishment.

In this interview with Haaretz, it is apparent that Bisogniero is careful not to stray from NATO's official line and not to upset the Arab nations that are following closely the warming relations between his organization and Israel. Juxtaposed against this careful restraint, his criticism toward Iran's nuclear ambitions comes across even harsher.

The Middle East peace process seems to be stalled. Can NATO help get it unstuck, by offering new ideas or contributing new peace-keeping forces?

NATO has no role in solving the Middle East Peace Process. Nobody asked NATO to play a role and NATO is not seeking to play such a role. The two parties: Israel, the Palestinians, the UN, the Quartet are in the lead in helping find a solution to this conflict. At the same time, NATO believes, as clearly stated by NATO's Heads of State and Government at their June 2004 Istanbul Summit, that progress toward a just, lasting and comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should remain a priority for countries of the region and the international community as a whole.

If negotiations on the Syrian-Israeli track advance to the point of both sides agreeing in principle to demilitarize zones along the border, would NATO be willing to replace UNDOF there and serve as a buffer between the armed forces?

The North Atlantic Council, which is NATO's decision making body, has never discussed playing a role in any of the peace tracks of the Middle East Peace process, be it the Israeli-Palestinian, the Israeli-Lebanese, or the Israeli-Syrian tracks. So I cannot speculate on any scenario concerning the different tracks of the Middle East Peace Process, simply because NATO is not involved in this process; while of course the Allies welcomed at the time of NATO's Istanbul Summit in June 2004 all elements of international efforts aimed at promoting a comprehensive peace on all tracks.

What is NATO's position regarding the threat of Iran reaching a nuclear weapon capability? Do NATO members fear being targeted by Iranian missiles or terror cells?

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is a common threat to NATO, Israel and to all the other six Mediterranean Dialogue countries. While NATO is not involved in the negotiations with Iran, it is deeply concerned about the proliferation risks of the Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Particularly worrying are the recent IAEA report showing that the total number of centrifuges has risen to 8,692; or Iran's recent admission of having clandestinely built a new facility for uranium enrichment near the city of Qom. We are also very concerned that the IAEA has once again concluded that it cannot exclude the existence of a possible military dimension to Iran's nuclear program. The NATO Allies have called on a number of occasions on Iran to fully comply with UNSCRs 1696, 1737, 1747 and 1803. They remain hopeful for a diplomatic solution. And even if there may be scope for engaging with Iran in the framework of a regional approach to Afghanistan, this does not mean that we have set aside our differences on key issues such as the Iranian nuclear program; especially since Iran is not accepting the offer of Russia, and France on uranium enrichment abroad.

Is NATO's Operation Active Endeavor used to intercept Iranian arms shipments to Syria and Hezbollah? Has it been successful in that regard? How fruitful is the Israel Navy participation in the operation?

Operation Active Endeavour does not target any countries specifically. OAE is not a police operation, nor a maritime interdiction operation, it is a monitoring operation launched as a response to the terrorist attacks against the U.S. on 9/11 2001, under which NATO ships are monitoring shipping and providing escorts to non-military vessels to help detect, deter and protect against terrorist activity in the Mediterranean sea. Since the June 2004 Istanbul Summit, Operation Active Endeavour has been open to NATO partners and non-NATO contributing nations such as for example: Russia, Ukraine and all MD partner countries. In October 2006, indeed, NATO and Israel finalized the modalities of Israel's contribution to OAE, whereby Israel provided a military liaison officer at CCMAR Naples, to facilitate the exchange of intelligence in support of OAE. In June 2008 NATO and Morocco proceeded to an exchange of letters for Morocco's contribution to OAE and they are now defining the modalities of its contribution to the operation. In July 2009, Israel offered to enhance its contribution by making available a ship to this operation. Following this offer, the North Atlantic Council held an initial exchange of views and, in September 2009, accepted in principle the Israeli offer. The Alliance is currently defining the practical modalities of the participation of the Israeli ship to this operation, which will be subject to a number of steps to be agreed between NATO and Israel.

Your visit in Israel has to do with the new ICP. What does this program include, by way of new departures in quality or quantity?

The Individual Cooperation Programs which are signed by NATO and MD countries are periodically revised. Individual Cooperation Programs allow interested Mediterranean Dialogue countries and NATO to frame their cooperation in a more prospective and focused way. This enables interested countries to outline the main short and long term objectives of their cooperation with the Alliance, in accordance with NATO's objectives and policies for the Mediterranean Dialogue. The revised Individual Cooperation Program, discussed in Israel by the NATO delegation which I have led yesterday and today, testifies of the high ambition Israel places in the development of its political and practical cooperative ties with NATO. To this end, I would like to congratulate Israel for the quantitative leap in our relations and I welcome Israel's interest in furthering cooperation with NATO, especially in important areas such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, interoperability, armaments cooperation, the fight against terrorism, civil emergency planning and public diplomacy, to mention just a few.

Is the military aspect of NATO-Israel cooperation being overshadowed by the political aspect?

I do not think that the military aspect of NATO-Israel cooperation under the Mediterranean Dialogue is overshadowed by the political aspect. I am here today with a delegation which is composed of both members of the civilian and military structures of NATO. We have had meetings with both the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense. Yesterday, I met the Deputy Minister of Defense Mr. Matan Vilnai and this morning, I have met the Deputy Chief of the IDF General Staff Major General Benny Gantz. The Chairman of NATO's Military Committee visited Israel just last week and conducted high level military talks. This is a clear indication that the two pillars of NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue: political dialogue and practical cooperation go hand in hand.

What is NATO's position regarding Hezbollah and Hamas? Does it consider them terrorist organizations, does it make a distinction between so-called "political" and "military" wings and does it have any policy on contacts with them?

As I mentioned earlier, NATO is not involved neither in the Middle East Peace Process, consequently neither in the Israeli-Palestinian, or Israeli-Lebanese tracks of the Peace Process. Therefore we have not an official position neither on Hamas or Hezbollah. Neither have we had any contacts with them. I will not discuss specific groups that are or are not on NATO's list which is not public. But NATO's record against terrorism is clear and strong. The determination that NATO is showing in Afghanistan, to prevent it from becoming once again a hub of global terrorism; or the fact that fighting terrorism is part of the practical cooperation under the Mediterranean Dialogue, are proof of that.

How does the emerging "new strategic concept" refer to Israel and its role in NATO's future? Is the NATO focus shifting towards the Middle East and Asia, or conversely, shifting back to Europe once NATO's role in Afghanistan and Iraq diminishes?

At their Strasbourg and Kehl Summit last April, NATO's Heads of State and Government tasked the Secretary General to develop a new Strategic Concept; the third one since the end of the Cold War. This exercise will be completed by the next NATO Summit to take place in Lisbon by late 2010. The Summit also tasked the Secretary General of NATO to convene and lead a group of qualified experts lead by Mrs. Madeline Albright, who will lay the ground for the new Strategic Concept and will report back to the Secretary General. As Mr. Rasmussen has mentioned on a number of occasions, our intention is to make the Strategic Concept the most inclusive process in policy formulation at NATO. All Mediterranean Dialogue partners and therefore Israel as well, are being involved in its development at various levels in order to receive from them their perspectives and contribution of ideas, because we have a common interest in discussing our future together. It is too early therefore to anticipate any conclusion.

Should Israel expect an upgrade in status vis-a-vis NATO, given that it is not in either Europe or North America? Could it at least enjoy the same status conferred on Japan, Australia and other countries outside NATO's core zone?

Israel-NATO relations have been upgraded through the Individual Cooperation Program that Israel has developed with the Alliance. Israel takes already part in a genuine partnership which is tailored to the specific realities of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern region; which is the Mediterranean Dialogue, of which Israel is a very active member since 1994, together with other six Arab countries. The Allies attach the greatest importance to two principles guiding our Mediterranean Dialogue. The first one is the respect for each partner's specificity, allowing for a tailored approach to the specific needs of each of our partner countries, for example through Individual Cooperation Programs. Each member of the MD should be in a position to move its bilateral relations with NATO at its own rhythm. The second principle is one in which all MD partners are offered the same basis for their cooperation with NATO, to ensure that this remains an even handed process.