NATO to Israel: Let's Focus on the Practical

In an exclusive interview with Haaretz NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer speaks about the Alliance's `added value' to Israel security and warns of misunderstandings.

The original plan of his one day visit to Israel yesterday, included a helicopter flight above the route of the security fence, but it was canceled. On his first official visit here as NATO's secretary-general, he will not step foot in the territories.

He was to fly in last night and NATO Secretary-General Jap de Hoop Scheffer is to meet this morning with Israel's political and defense leaders: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon.

In his job Scheffer is a frequent flier - throughout Europe and to Washington, to NATO's new target countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and to the Arab countries that have ties to NATO (last month he visited in Jordan and Morocco)

This week, Scheffer hosted U.S. President George W. Bush and the leaders of the other 25 members of NATO. This is the start of his second year as secretary-general. He is a successful and friendly combination of politician and diplomat. An aficionado of open-air sports, he runs, rides a mountain bike and plays golf. He also enjoys spectator sports. He and his wife Jeannine, a French teacher, have another shared hobby, French cinema.

Scheffer has moved from The Hague, the seat of his country's government, where he served as its foreign minister, to Brussels, the capital of Europe. That is good for Israel: The Dutch Foreign Ministry is known for its support for greater NATO involvement in the Middle East. Scheffer may not be the secretary-general to bring Israel to NATO, but clearly he is bringing NATO to Israel. It is wise to maintain good relations with the foreign and defense ministers of Europe; in addition to the influence they wield at home, they often end up at top of the political echelon in NATO as a counterweight to its always American military commander.

Scheffer says the visit here "follows the successful first ever meeting of ministers from NATO and "Mediterranean Dialogue" countries on December 8, 2004 in Brussels." The purpose of the visit, he says, is "the enhancement of the political and practical dimensions of the Mediterranean Dialogue, decided on by NATO leaders at their Istanbul summit last June. The aim of my visit to Israel is to have a frank and open discussion with your government leaders on the perspectives for such an increased relationship. The Alliance attaches great importance to the very active role played by Israel in NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue, since its inception, and looks forward to developing further cooperative activities with your country."

You have just finished a two-day-long meeting with the most informed leaders of the Western alliance. How serious and urgent is the Iranian threat and the threat of Islamic terror organizations to NATO countries and Israel?

"The situation in the Middle East has indeed been high on the agenda of NATO heads of state and government, when they met on 22 February in Brussels. I welcome this discussion, which is fully in line with the increased political role I am advocating for NATO. Allies are very concerned by threats emanating from terrorism or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

If either Syria or Hezbollah is proved to have been behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri, what should NATO do about it?

"We, of course, strongly condemn any act of terrorism such as the assassination of Rafik Hariri. But NATO is not the global policeman. NATO does not automatically act when a terrorist attack is perpetrated anywhere in the world. This is not NATO's role. NATO is a multilateral international security organization, where the decision to act is taken by the government of the Alliance by consensus, when our initial interests are at stake."

The United States has appointed a "security coordinator" for the Palestinians, Lt.-Gen. William Ward. Do you envisage a concrete role for NATO in facilitating this move - including troops along the Palestinian-Israeli boundary, or the Philadelphi Egyptian-Israeli-Palestinian line, whether as a buffer or a monitoring force?

"NATO adopted two important initiatives at the Istanbul summit: to enhance its 10-year Mediterranean Dialogue, offering to transform it into a genuine partnership; and to launch the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative to countries in the broader Middle East region, starting with individual members of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council]. The peace process as such is not currently on the NATO agenda. The Allies believe that the lead for that process rests with the Quartet and they attach the utmost importance to reaching a just, lasting and comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to achieve a two-state solution, in which Israel and Palestine live side by side in peace and security.

"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."

Scheffer stresses: The message I bring to Israel is that NATO looks very much forward to work with Israel towards an increased political and practical relation, in the framework of the reinforced Mediterranean Dialogue decided in Istanbul. We need to deepen the political dimension of the Dialogue in order to better explain NATO's transformation and avoid misunderstandings about NATO's role and commitments.

"But we also need to focus on practical areas of cooperation where NATO can represent an added value in the security field. In areas such as the military to military cooperation, to achieve a better inter-operability between our forces, the fight against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

Should Israel apply for membership in NATO? What are the benefits for it in a somewhat upgraded status of "partner", and how long would it be consigned to this position, considering that while some Partnership for Peace countries were elevated to full membership within a few short years, others have been waiting in vain?

"Your question underscores how important it is to avoid misunderstandings on the objectives of the Mediterranean Dialogue. I do not think it has been designed as a first step to a future membership for current or future participants. The dialogue should be judged on its own merits, its contribution to the security and stability of the broader Middle East. And we can do a lot more in that respect, within the framework agreed upon in Istanbul. "

Israel has historically preferred bilateral relations over ones with international, multi-member bodies, where the need for consensus tends to push decisions towards a pro-Arab stance. Why should it expect a better treatment from a 26-member alliance, some of whose prominent countries adhere to a markedly cool position towards Israel?

"Allies attach the greatest importance to two principles guiding our Mediterranean Dialogue. 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."

One of your predecessors, who turned into something of a competitor, Javier Solana, challenged you at the Munich Security Policy conference by claiming that the EU should be the vehicle through which European countries deepen their engagement in the Middle East. Why should Israel prefer NATO to the European Union, which can sweeten the deal by important economic benefits?

"The first part of your question should perhaps be addressed to Israel. For my part, I believe that NATO has a specificity. It brings together Europe and North America, in a partnership among equals. There is a clear added value in this and therefore there can be no competition with the EU but only a good complementarity. I think there is enough work for everybody, NATO, the EU, the G8 and others, to contribute to the Middle East stability, each bringing in its own added value. "

Two-way street

About expectations from Israel, Scheffer: "In today's inter-dependent world, security cooperation requires a two-way street, in order to tackle successfully new challenges and threats emanating from terrorism, proliferation and failed states. One of the main objectives is clearly the fight against terrorism, through effective intelligence sharing, border security, curbing illicit trafficking particularly of small arms and light weapons, as well as through maritime cooperation and we value Israel's expertise in that regard."

Does NATO want the Israel Defense Forces to take part in its exercises, beyond the maritime Operations Active Endeavor (OAE)? When will it be invited to participate in peace-keeping forces and operations, keeping in mind that another Med Dialogue country, Jordan, has been doing it in the Balkans as well as now in training Iraqi security personnel?

"We are currently discussing with Israel the modalities of a possible contribution to OAE, as we do with other interested partners. Beyond this, part of the Istanbul decision was to give partners a larger access to our military cooperation program, including Exercises. I think Israel, like other Mediterranean Dialogue partners, should definitively benefit from these opportunities."

Ambassador [to the EU] Oded Eran has presented you, and the North Atlantic Council, a proposal regarding the NATO-Israel relationship. The early reaction to this paper seems to have been very positive. In concrete terms, would Israel benefit from intelligence sharing, research and development funds and access to NAMSA's [NATO Maintenance and Supply Agency] spare part network?

"Indeed, the Allies are looking favorably at Israel's proposals. The exact scope of our future cooperation program has, of course, still to be worked out in detail, as many areas, including those you mention, require careful consideration."

Is the Israel Air Force going to be represented on NATO's multi-national crews of the AWACS squadron, which has already sent one of its planes to visit Israel last year?

"The NATO AWACS are one of the NATO assets comprising crews from NATO member countries. It does not include crews from partner countries. "

Finally, is a closer relationship with NATO, in its various manifestations, going to improve Israel's security and diplomatic positions, or conversely put added constrains on its room for maneuver?

"It is primarily for each country in the Mediterranean Dialogue to assess whether this endeavor brings an added value to its security needs. For my part, I am convinced that a cooperative outreach program, like NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue, contributes to everybody's security by fostering confidence and mutual understanding in the region."