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Should Israel join NATO?

NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen has called for the alliance to expand cooperation with Israel. Israel has been part of the Mediterranean dialogue with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which includes Arab states such as Tunisia and Egypt, since 1994. But there have been recent calls for NATO to deepen the relationship still further by accepting Israel as a member.

Rasmussen told the annual Herzliya conference that Israel had been one of the dialogue’s “most dynamic participants” but saw room for improvement in terms of the expanding the existing range of activities and the intensity of discussions. He identified civil emergency planning, military to military contacts and cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

One Israeli general predicted at the same conference that in the future Israel would take part in military coalitions rather than fighting alone, which would represent a big change for the Israeli military. However other speakers ruled out any coalition fighting until the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved. The NATO secretary-general said that the lack of a peace settlement “constitutes a major impediment in addressing other issues in the region,” and undermined regional stability.

He stressed that NATO was prepared to get involved if there were a comprehensive peace settlement, if both Israelis and Palestinians requested assistance, and if the UN were to endorse possible NATO involvement. The Palestinian leadership has said it would agree to international peacekeepers to be deployed in a future Palestinian state.

The prospect of Israeli membership of NATO was raised by the president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, in a German newspaper on the eve of Rasmussen’s speech in Herzliya. Writing in Die Welt, Lauder said that Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, deserves guarantees for its peace and security that NATO membership would provide.

Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, in an article in the September-October 2010 edition of the National Interest in which he warned that an Israeli attack on Iran would be a “disaster in the making”, recommended that Israel should join NATO and benefit from its nuclear umbrella. Israel’s own nuclear weapons arsenal remains unacknowledged under the country’s official policy of opacity.

However western diplomats said the Israeli government has never officially broached the issue of membership which could be a double-edged sword for Israel. The Jewish state would see benefits from the protection of NATO’s Article 5 under which an attack on one member is seen as an attack on all, but would wish to maintain its operational freedom on security issues. It is far from certain that Israel would want to submit to NATO constraints linked to membership.

One diplomat said that there would also be resistance from inside NATO regarding possible Israeli membership. “The Turks would hit the roof,” the diplomat said.

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