The answer is “no,” if NATO’s official website is to be taken at its word. Setting out its position on future membership, it declares “NATO’s door remains open to any European country in a position to undertake the commitments and obligations of membership, and contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic area.”
“European country”. It would take a stretch of the imagination to designate Israel a European country. Nor could Turkey be called in evidence as a precedent. Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1951, and the organization’s policy on expanding its membership relates to the future, not the past. Although Turkey can at best be described as a transcontinental state, since it lies partly in Europe, but mainly on the Anatolian peninsula in Western Asia – the Middle East, as the area is generally known – Its acceptance into the alliance is past history.
The decision back in the early 1950s to allow Turkey (and indeed Greece) to join NATO stemmed largely from Cold War strategies directed against the Soviet Union. Both states were viewed by the West as bulwarks against Moscow and the spread of communism in Europe. Accepting non-North Atlantic nations into NATO lay at the heart of the US’s Truman Doctrine — extending military and economic aid to states vulnerable to the threat of Soviet expansion.
Could current geopolitical considerations lead to a flexible reinterpretation of NATO’s policy on new members?
On May 4, 2016 the North Atlantic Council agreed to allow five non-NATO members to open diplomatic missions to its headquarters in Brussels. One of the states so favored is Israel. The concession provides the ambassadors and attachés of the approved states – Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Israel – upgraded access to exercises, events and alliance-related procurement programmes. Invitations were first issued back in 2011, but in Israel’s case had been blocked for the past five years by Turkey, whose agreement was required under NATO’s rules of unanimous consent.
Zaki Shalom, a senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, said the NATO initiative was more symbolic than strategically substantive. “It’s not as if Israel is becoming a NATO member …What’s really important is that it demonstrates the warming of relations with Turkey.”
Since its founding in 1949, NATO has added new members on seven occasions and now comprises 28 nations. The organization has also broadened its operations to encompass both a “Partnership for Peace” programme with states of the former USSR, and a number of “Dialogue Programs”. Among these is the Mediterranean Dialogue, set up in 1994 and intended to link Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia in security discussions.
Of course, this group of countries lacks any culture of cooperation in security matters, so the programme as such is pretty much a dead letter – except that out of it, Israel alone has forged extremely close links with NATO. For example in October 2006, after prolonged negotiations lasting some 18 months, Israel and NATO concluded an Individual Cooperation Program (ICP). Israel was the first country outside of Europe – and the first among NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue countries – to reach such an agreement.
The NATO-Israel ICP, renewed and modestly expanded in December 2008, is a wide-ranging framework intended to extend the scope of cooperation across a wide range of fields including response to terrorism, intelligence sharing, armament cooperation and management, nuclear, biological, and chemical defence, military doctrine and exercises, civilian emergency plans, and disaster preparedness.
NATO-Israeli relations had warmed to such an extent that in March 2013 NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed Israel’s then-president, Shimon Peres, to NATO headquarters to discuss how to deepen the relationship. The main purpose was to enhance military cooperation, focusing on counter-terrorism. The agreement they reached extended the NATO-Israeli association beyond the “Mediterranean Dialogue”. The joint statement issued after the meeting referred to a NATO-Israel partnership, suggesting Israel’s participation in active theatre warfare alongside NATO as a de facto member of the North Atlantic Alliance.
“The two agreed during their discussions,” ran the statement, “that Israel and NATO are partners in the fight against terror.” In other words, Israel would be directly involved is US-NATO military operations in the Middle East.
Israel was already a partner in NATO’s naval control system in the Mediterranean. By supporting NATO forces in patrolling the Mediterranean. Israel has contributed on a regular basis to Operation Active Endeavor, which was established after 9/11 and designed to prevent the movement of terrorists or weapons of mass destruction.
So rather like the UK’s desired position post-Brexit in its relations with the EU, Israel appears to be an active participant in NATO’s activities while not being a member of the organization. Would it in fact be in Israel’s interests to be admitted to full membership, assuming NATO relaxed its current requirements on new members?
Opinion within Israel is, inevitably, divided. In practical terms NATO’s “all for one, one for all” doctrine – the principle of collective defence enshrined in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which regards an attack against one ally as an attack against all – probably militates against Israel’s acceptance into the alliance. How many of NATO’s 28 members would willingly sign up to fighting for Israel if it were attacked by any of its many potential enemies?
In any case Israel’s defence and security policies have always been based on self-reliance and freedom of manoeuvre, an approach likely to be constrained within a formal relationship with NATO. Israel’s unwritten alliance with the United States provides an alternative backup, should the need arise.
As it currently stands, the NATO-Israel relationship allows both parties to benefit from a uniquely close association, with neither being embarrassed by the requirements of Article 5. On balance, that seems a win-win situation.