To enhance relationships with non-member states, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization initiated the Mediterranean Dialogue framework as a forum of cooperation between itself and seven non-NATO states from North Africa and the Near East, namely: Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, Israel, Mauritania, and last to join, Algeria. Further along, a similar forum was initiated with other European countries – the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program. Meetings held within the Med-Dialogue framework with NATO were usually conducted in an orderly and topical manner.
Israel immediately responded positively to NATOs request to join the Med Dialogue as part of the country’s principled and strategic approach to join regional cooperation frameworks, like those developed by the European Union.
Preliminary years of the Med Dialogue did not lead to significant progress of the Israeli-NATO relationship, and members of the forum were provided with relatively minimal opportunities for cooperative activities such as courses, trainings and collaborative exercises.
Israeli attempts to promote specific collaborative activities were minimally reciprocated and were generally slow to materialize. For example, official agreements with NATO in the areas of disaster management and logistical engagement were delayed for years at a time.
NATO’s Mission Changes
NATO actively entered the protracted war in Afghanistan and embraced the fight as its core organizational mission. With this pivot away from the obsolete Soviet threat and toward Afghanistan came changes related to NATO’s regional cooperation in the Middle East and its perception of threats related to terrorism and radical Islamism.
Israel stepped up and was willing to provide support and assistance for the organization and its individual member states that had sent troops to the region and required assistance preparing for counter-terrorism and warfare in a desert context. Several NATO member states conducted exercises in Israel to prepare for warfare in Afghanistan and to emulate the rocky desert terrain.
During the 2004 NATO Summit in Istanbul, the Alliance expanded the Middle Eastern and regional folder and launched the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI), a cooperative framework focused on Persian Gulf state membership. Six countries were invited to join, but only four became active members: Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia and Oman remained on the fence.
Israel appreciated the opportunity for facilitated engagements, conferences and summits with Northern African and Gulf countries with which it did not have a standing formal relationship, and simultaneously worked to promote and deepen the general relationship with NATO, which was progressing slowly at the time.
There was one successful cooperation of note. NATO offered Israel the opportunity to participate in a naval operation in the Mediterranean Sea with the objective of interdicting illicit arms, drugs, and terrorists. The operation, titled Active Endeavour was run out of Naples, Italy. It proposed to assign a dedicated Israeli representative to the mission. Israel agreed, and since the beginning of 2008 an Israeli presence has been on board this mission, since renamed Sea Guardian and transitioned to Britain. Both NATO and Israel benefitted from this valuable relationship and enjoyed reciprocated morale-boosting and high-quality substantive contributions.
Participation in maritime operation was Israel’s first engagement in a multi-national operational team and has raised discussions about the inclusion of Israeli Navy ships in this specific operation.
In the 2010 NATO Summit in Portugal, it was decided to change the cooperation mechanism with non-NATO member states to expand activities offered. All non-NATO member states were transitioned to the One Tool Box approach. In principle, all external partners to NATO receive the same offer of support and assistance with regard to a NATO work plan – which significantly increases the activities offered to Israel as well, particularly when compared to previous years when other members received greater support.
Additional improvements were implemented including, inter alia, the opening of an Israeli permanent office and presence in the NATO headquarters, participation of Israeli navy ships in maritime operations, ratification of the individual and bilateral IPCP agreement with NATO, and so forth.
Fallout from Mavi Marmara
Concretely and operationally, a majority of the new areas of cooperation were blocked later in 2010 due to the crisis in the Turkish-Israeli relationship in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident, in which Turkish vessels attempting to run Israel’s maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip were stopped and nine Turks, fighting Israel commandos, were killed.
Usual and procedural decision-making in NATO is consensus-driven and Turkey invoked its right to veto within NATO, practically preventing Israel from making any progress within the organization – operationally or otherwise.
NATO’s Secretary General at the time assured Israel of fairness as he maintained a policy of non-discrimination and worked to prevent agenda items that attempted to further isolate Israel and prevent cooperation.
Israel’s limited activism within NATO continued from 2010-2016 due to ongoing tensions with Turkey. In 2016, an agreement between Turkey and Israel was achieved and Turkey agreed to remove its veto on Israeli participation in NATO activities. This is the current situation.
Despite Israel’s limited NATO activism over the course of those six years, Israel continued to provide partial assistance and support, for example during emergencies or natural disasters – earthquakes, firefighting response etc. NATOs situation room supported Israel during the mega-fire in the Carmel Forest in 2010 and coordinated emergency responses from NATO member states and non-member states alike.
With the withdrawal of Turkey’s veto in 2016, the individual cooperation agreement (the IPCP) between Israel and NATO was finalized, and the Israeli office at the NATO HQ was set up. This office is not an embassy, but rather serves a liaison function, meant to increase the presence and meetings of Israeli representatives with counterparts from other countries and functions of NATO. Once again, participation of Israeli navy ships as part of the Sea Guardian operation was discussed.
Benefits for Both
The potential benefits gleaned from a thriving relationship for Israel and NATO are great for both. Israel’s comparative advantage and high competence in NATOs core activities related to counter-terrorism, cyber, intelligence, missile defense and so on are desirable. NATO offers Israel access to a global network and platform of cooperation with shared interests including relevant courses, training opportunities, conferences, information exchange and added value in countering terrorism.
Israel struggles with promoting its ties with multi-lateral organizations as it has historically focused on developing bilateral relationships on a more “intimate” basis. This strategic shift in the Israeli approach is not without growing pains and requires a lengthy and ongoing process. Israel is now more open to the benefits it stands to gain from an enhanced relationship with NATO, including improving its global standing and legitimacy and the ability to establish some form of deterrence, based on its partnership and cooperation with the organization.
As this article was being completed, Israel, after years of negotiations and delays, has signed an important agreement with NATO’s logistics agency, the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA). Today, Israel is focused on promoting and finalizing various agreements and accords with NATO that will lead to enhanced and fruitful future cooperation with the organization well into the future.
Colonel Uri Naaman (Ret.) served as Coordinator for NATO and European Defense Organizations at Israel’s Ministry of Defense.