The Israel – NATO Connection

Despite the opening of a permanent Liaison Office at NATO HQ in Belgium, Israel's road to genuine partnership with NATO is still long

The Israel – NATO Connection

Photo: AP

NATO suggested, Israel agreed, and from now on an Israeli office will operate permanently at NATO HQ. The idea had been conceived about five years ago, but implementation was delayed owing to the stubborn objection of a NATO member state - Turkey. As relations between Turkey and Israel warmed up, Turkey withdrew its objection and Israel will run a representative office at NATO HQ.

Will Israeli representation at NATO HQ constitute a significant, strategic step for the State of Israel and its security? The answer is both yes and no.

Yes, because this is an accomplishment for Israel – a state struggling for its legitimacy and fighting off countless attempts to drive it off the international stage. Its very presence among NATO member states and partners constitutes ample recognition and positions Israel as an integral element of an important and reputable organization.

No, as the importance of this move must not be overstated. The reasons have to do with the very nature of the organization, with the way it conducts its activities and with its current status, as well as with the sensitive relationship between Israel and NATO. Israel is not yet a NATO member state, and has not even been elevated to partner status. Consequently, the road to genuine partnership with NATO is still long.

NATO 2016

In 2014, the armed forces of NATO folded, quietly and under the Radar, and departed Afghanistan, where they had participated, for over a decade, along with the USA, in a confrontation against radical Islamist terrorism. Since then, NATO's voice has been heard less and less. It failed to dictate the security-military agenda during the tumultuous period following the collapse of the various regimes in the Middle East, including the severe implications that followed those events, and participated only marginally in pre-initiated activities. Instead, NATO chose to focus on the conflict with Russia over the crisis in the Ukraine, and it seems that it has moved to the rear part of the stage with regard to the current security challenges. How did that happen?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established in 1949 on the background of the Cold War between the West on one side and USSR and its satellites on the other. The USA, Canada and some of Western Europe joined to form an alliance that would guarantee mutual defense. This commitment was set forth in the North Atlantic Treaty signed in Washington, which compels each member to regard an attack against one member state as an attack against all members. In other words, the founders reaffirmed the rule "All for One and One for All". Although NATO regards itself as an organization, it is, in fact, an alliance between countries. The members do not have a common military organization or a separate, independent entity, but partake in joint activities and make unanimous decisions. Each member state sends its military force with the equipment it normally uses and the procedures it normally employs, to partake in joint operations and training activities. NATO has training and education institutions, but none of the member states has relinquished its responsibility for its own military, and NATO has very few shared assets. Each member state maintains an embassy at NATO HQ along with a military representative office headed by a General, and the various functions within the organization area are manned by representatives from the various member states.

When the walls came down and the Communist enemy faded away, the question was where the organization should be heading, should it continue to exist. The need for transformation became evident, taking into consideration the nature of the security threats faced by the world population in general, and the population of NATO member state in particular. The strategy decided upon was to enable as many European countries as possible to join the alliance. If all of them became members, no conflicts would emerge, and confrontations – including military ones – would be avoided. In this context, NATO played a major role in the process where the West embraced the countries of the former Eastern Bloc and helped those countries evolve into modern, democratic countries with modern armed forces. This was, without a doubt, NATO's greatest success and finest hour.

These days, the alliance consists of 28 member states (Montenegro was invited to become the 29th), but the organization has lost its effectiveness and evolved into a cumbersome machine that can only function upon a consensus, which is by no means an easy task to accomplish. For example, countries like Greece and Turkey, which have been in disagreement for many years, often find it difficult to agree on anything. Consensus is important, but it can often lead to stagnation. Undoubtedly, this is an element that makes every activity and every decision more complex and poses difficulties in situations where immediate action is required. This disadvantage is particularly evident now, when the events and processes taking place in our world change at a mind-boggling pace.

The alliance’s demand to associate as many countries as possible led to the emergence of a new status – “Partnership for Peace” (PFP) consisting partner states which preferred not to become members of NATO, like Switzerland, Austria, Ireland, Sweden, Finland, etc... Additionally, the PFP category also includes countries in the process of accepting full membership, like Montenegro, Georgia, Belarus, Armenia and others. The PFP states maintain close contacts with NATO, have a permanent representative office at NATO HQ and their representatives function within the organization, but they do not take part in decision making and the collective defense commitment does not apply to them.

Two senior partners should be noted in particular. The first one is the Ukraine, which had been nominated for membership as far back as 2008, but when NATO was to announce its acceptance at its annual summit in Bucharest, Vladimir Putin, then the Russian Prime Minister, announced that it would be a 'red line' and that he could not accept a situation where a country that has a common border with Russia would be a member of NATO. The organization caved in. It did not openly admit it and announced that the Ukraine had been accepted as a member, but the actual timing for the Ukraine joining the organization was postponed until further notice and in effect, the Ukraine has not actually become a NATO member state to this day.

Needless to say, in retrospect, the Russian intervention in the Crimea and the Ukraine could have been different if the Ukraine had really benefited from the collective defense of NATO. The restraint Russia had undertaken in the context of the crisis with Turkey – a member of NATO – which had shot down, possibly provocatively, a Russian fighter aircraft, demonstrated very clearly that the collective defense commitment is an effective deterrent. It also explains the Russians' stubborn refusal to allow a neighboring state to become a member of the organization.

Partner or Enemy?

The other country which is a senior partner in NATO was once a bitter enemy of the West but has become a PFP in the organization that had been founded originally in order to fight it – Russia. Russia became a partner in NATO, issues of common interest were charted, cooperation agreements were signed and as part of the improved relations, a joint NATO-Russia Council (NRC) was established in the context of the Rome Summit of 2002. Through this council, the parties exchange views and ideas regarding issues included in the security-diplomatic agenda and decide on their combined moves. Russia participated in NATO training exercises, in an operation in the Mediterranean and in various other activities. However, these partnership relations are far from the affinity and friendship that should prevail between partners. The relations between the members of NATO and the Russians were no picnic. The Russians objected to and actually interfered with the implementation of the organization's anti-missile defense program, including the deployment of air-defense systems in Poland. The Russians challenged their relations with the organization using their armed confrontation with Georgia (at that time, the relations were suspended for a while). But even a tolerant organization like NATO had a hard time swallowing the Russian 'frog' of the annexation of the Crimea and their intervention in the Ukraine. The NATO-Russia relations ran aground. The permanent talks were suspended, the joint activities were discontinued, and the partners started exchanging verbal blows. Earlier this year, a cautious step was taken toward a return to a dialog and understanding. The NRC was convened but its sessions were cold and failed to produce any tangible achievements. NATO is determined not to ignore the issue of Russian-Ukrainian relations. It is even provoking Russia by staging a large-scale military exercise – albeit a defensive one by definition, but still intended to rehearse ways for coping with a Russian invasion. Russia, for its part, has also toned things up a notch. Earlier this year, in an official document endorsed by President Putin, NATO was defined as "a threat to Russia's national security."

Confusing? Who is a partner and who is an enemy? Apparently, even in this field things are not necessarily painted black or white. In essence, the relations between NATO and Russia may be said to be painted many shades of gray.

Fighting Terrorism?

In 2001, one of the founding members of NATO, the USA, had suffered a terrorist attack on an unprecedented scale, and the collective defense doctrine was put to the test for the first time in an era with no conventional wars. The European countries, always reluctant to actually employ their armed forces, had a hard time finding the way to fulfill their "all for one" commitment. Eventually, they joined the operation in Afghanistan led by the Americans and initiated an operation codenamed Active Endeavor, consisting of maritime patrol activity intended to intercept arms smuggling ships in the Mediterranean Sea. Meanwhile, terrorism kept striking at other major NATO members – France, Belgium (the home of NATO HQ) and Turkey. NATO spoke, and still speaks, with a weak voice. What about the collective defense commitment? NATO has the solutions (or not…).

Regrettably, NATO, a cumbersome political entity, failed to dictate a security policy vis-à-vis the significant threat of global terrorism led by radical Islam. It was not the leading entity in the discourse regarding the Iranian nuclear program, core issues in the Middle East and so forth. Anyone monitoring the relevance of the organization in dealing with global threats has realized that politics won and the organization took a step back with regard to leadership. The European Union is the organization discussing such matters as the immigration crisis and the terrorism striking the European continent. In July 2016, the heads of the NATO member states will attend the organization's annual summit, which this year is scheduled to take place in Warsaw. The discourse in anticipation of the summit has not changed. The organization focuses on Russia – the old, familiar adversary. Additionally, NATO faces problems owing to the economic crisis, which led the member states to reduce their investments in military power and national security. Military activity has decreased and the importance of military in the context of the European agenda is constantly declining.

Is this the right time to dismantle NATO? Despite its inherent weakness, I will have to say no. It is easy to destroy and much more difficult to build. NATO is an important, massive-size platform for the integration of political and military forces. In 2010, the organization decided, through the help of a team of experts, to set forth a new strategic concept for the organization in preparation for the year 2020. Unfortunately, this strategic concept cannot serve as a current concept in view of the numerous and unexpected changes that have taken place, mainly in the Middle East, including the disintegration of several states and the rise of the Islamic State organization. At the same time, NATO's strategic approach is noteworthy, along with the desire to associate as many countries as possible with the organization through various links, and to find options for cooperation with any potential partner.

The foundations of the organization are solid and stable. It has established numerous institutions and professional centers in an extensive range of fields and subjects. Additionally, military bases were erected which could serve the alliance when the need arises. Therefore, lamenting the passing of NATO is premature. Instead of dismantling itself, the organization should, hopefully, come to the realization that in order to be relevant again it must play a decisive role in the eradication of the dangers to the peace and well-being of the population it was originally entrusted to defend, and act accordingly.

Israel and NATO

It is easy to equate the relationship between Israel and NATO with tango dancing – not just due to the back-and-forth movement that characterizes it, but also because 'it takes two to tango'. In some instances, it was NATO that was reluctant to cooperate with Israel. In other cases, it was Israel who failed to improve her relations with the organization. In 1994 (the days of hope for the emergence of a New Middle East), the alliance initiated a way to establish connections with Israel. In order to circumnavigate any possible objection on the part of the Arab world while at the same time associating Arab countries with the organization, NATO formed a forum designated "The Mediterranean Dialogue" (MD states). This forum included Israel plus six other countries (Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunis and Mauritania) and provided a collective-multilateral framework for cooperation between the Mediterranean Dialogue countries (including Israel, as stated) and NATO, based on the hierarchy of their connections with the organization. The members of the Mediterranean Dialogue forum do not have the same status as PFP countries, but the organization offers them various options for participating in its activities (although not in all of them), including military operations. Incidentally, NATO formed yet another forum that includes the Persian Gulf countries for the purpose of establishing cooperative alliances with those countries, too (ICI states). After a while, Israel compelled NATO to jointly sign an individual cooperation program (ICP) – a bilateral plan that expands the scope of Israeli-NATO cooperation, which exists in addition to the activity of the Mediterranean Dialogue forum. Other MD states followed the Israeli example and now have their own ICPs with NATO. Israel succeeded in upgrading the cooperation agreement and extending the list of common interests. The agreement was endorsed in late 2008, just days prior to Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. Presumably, a slight delay on the part of NATO in approving this plan might have delayed its implementation, in view of the sensitivity and criticism pursuant to the Israeli operation. However, in effect, the ICP was signed and Israel maintained extensive connections with the organization.

Israel participated in NATO's Operation Active Endeavor in the Mediterranean Sea. An IDF Navy intelligence officer was stationed at the NATO base in charge of the operation. However, the idea of having an Israeli naval vessel participate in the operation did not work out, among other reasons Turkey's objection following the Marmara Flotilla incident.

Israel is a member of various NATO work groups, has hosted various NATO conferences like the NATO medical officer conference, and the IDF Chief of Staff or his deputy attend NATO's annual chief of staff conference in the context of a joint session of the member states and the Mediterranean Dialogue states.

In recent years, Israeli-NATO cooperation could not progress and develop because of a Turkish veto. Now, Israel has staked out a claim at the organization's office building with the opening of an Israeli representative office, and a small but important step was taken toward Israel's positioning and branding. The plan for cooperation with NATO, which already exists, is an important basis for expanding and consolidating the connections with NATO. Israel's experience in counterterrorism, the quality of its armed forces and its technological innovation capabilities are prime assets for any relevant security or defense organization, and all the more so for such a major and important organization as NATO.

Given the current status of this military-diplomatic organization, it still plays a significant role in the international arena. Israel has, and should have, an interest in taking advantage of its presence in the organization, and making a contribution. Some consideration should be given, therefore, to the need to strengthen the connections for the mutual benefit of both parties, possibly not today, tomorrow or the following day, but NATO has thrown in the gauntlet and it is Israel's time to pick it up, as it takes two to… NATO.


Col. (res.) Hanni Caspi was military attaché and IDF representative to NATO between 2007 and 2010. She is currently the CEO of the C-OP consulting and foreign relations company.

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