Amir Oren
Haaretz (Opinion)
February 9, 2011 - 1:00am

Anders Fogh Rasmussen discusses concerns over whether Egypt may reassess its foreign relations after Mubarak eventually steps down.

The North Atlantic Alliance "supports the efforts of the Egyptian and the Tunisian peoples for the establishment of a free society and a democratically elected government," says NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who was scheduled to arrive in Israel last night for talks with senior officials.

In an interview with Haaretz, Rasmussen, the 58-year-old former prime minister of Denmark, also reiterated the "three big Ifs" for NATO involvement in the Arab-Israeli peace-process: an agreement based on a two-state solution, a request from both side that it step in, and a UN mandate. As for the possibility of Israel upgrading its ties with the Alliance and becoming a member, Rasmussen referred to NATO's charter, limits membership to European (and North American ) countries.

In your November 2010 Lisbon Summit, the Alliance adopted a new "Strategic Concept." What is its relevance to the Middle East and in particular to Israel?

NATO's new Strategic Concept is relevant to the Middle East in two ways. First, because it gives NATO a clear role in taking on the security challenges that will dominate in the 21st century: defending against proliferation of missiles and nuclear weapons, fighting terrorism, building defenses against cyber attacks, and contributing to the security of energy supplies. I imagine anyone in the Middle East can see the relevance to your region.

Second, because we decided to substantially enhance our relations with all our partners, politically and militarily. We will offer more cooperation, including against the threats I just mentioned; we will step up our political dialogue to better predict and prevent crises; and we will do our best, within NATO, to ensure we answer to the specific concerns of our partners, including in the Mediterranean Dialogue. In a nutshell, our partnerships are going to deliver more for you and for us.

Following Lisbon, you have talked about "more efficient and flexible partnerships." Does that mean a change in the Mediterranean Dialogue framework, which from Tel Aviv seems to have run out of gas after more than a decade and a half?

I don't agree that the Mediterranean Dialogue has "run out of gas" - over the recent years, we have seen a steady increase in our political consultations and our practical cooperation. I think Lisbon will help energize the Mediterranean Dialogue. Why? Because our partnerships will now focus more on substance, in issues of common concern. That is the logic of flexible formats. We will bring together interested countries, within existing frameworks but also across them, to address issues that engage us all, like fighting piracy. I firmly believe that this flexible approach will bring more energy to our existing partnerships, including the Mediterranean Dialogue, and that can only benefit Israel.

Will Israel's relations with NATO get better, stronger and freer from being anchored to other countries which, for their own reasons, would rather go slow?

I do not share the assumption of your question. Let me explain. First, our relationships with Mediterranean countries allow us to proceed in two tracks: a bilateral one and a multilateral one. We can move faster with countries willing to do so. Our cooperation with Israel has advanced significantly over the years, and I'm glad that the Dialogue allows us this degree of flexibility. Second, I think the countries that want to move faster - like Israel - offer an example and a motivation to other MD countries, which has only helped the entire group. Finally, I think we shouldn't forget the regional dimension of the Dialogue. The political leaders and the chiefs of defense of the countries involved sit around the same table at MD meetings. I don't see many other fora where this happens, and bearing in mind the regional issues, this is no small achievement.

Tunisia and Egypt are members of the Mediterranean Dialogue partnership. Are you concerned that following the upheaval there, they might review their relations with NATO and with other MD countries such as Israel, as was the case - regarding Israel - after a coup in another MD country, Mauritania?

NATO supports the efforts of the Egyptian and the Tunisian peoples for the establishment of a free society and a democratically elected government. I see no reason to think that Egypt or Tunisia would want to distance themselves from the Mediterranean Dialogue, which has been beneficial to Egypt, Tunisia and to NATO.

Does the new partnership policy, which may be partly modeled after the Partnership for Peace design, entail the prospect of NATO membership for Israel down the road, as was the case with several PfP countries?

Let me answer this clearly. NATO's founding charter only allows for European countries to join the Alliance. It is there in black and white. But we do want to deepen our political dialogue and practical cooperation, and NATO's new partnership policy makes that very explicit. Let's focus on that.

As a former prime minister who was considered at the time friendly toward Israel, you are well positioned to understand why Israel may have good bilateral relations with certain European - and certainly North American - capitals, yet find the same governments constrained in a consensus-oriented Alliance. In this sense, can the whole ever be no less than the sum of its parts? What can be done about it?

Consensus is not a restraint. It is a strength. The principle of consensus ensures strong political cohesion and solidarity within the Alliance. We share views, we shape each other's opinions, and we decide together. What we decide together, we implement together and I think that is a great strength for NATO.

NATO is committed to Afghanistan for the next three years. It also has other military and financial obligations. Member countries slash their defense budgets and contributions, while by your own initiative, headquarters and staffs are being drastically cut. Is it then realistic to expect that even given the right political setting, NATO would be able to contribute peace-keeping forces to the Arab-Israeli arena?

The reforms we have undertaken are designed precisely to strengthen and to adapt our capabilities to today's challenges - to ensure we will have the capabilities we need today and into the future. In fact, I believe that the crisis has finally forced us to make some long-overdue changes which will have real benefits in the future.

But the question you raise is fundamentally political. NATO is not a party to the Middle East peace process. The parties themselves and the Quartet are in the lead in this process. I believe that progress toward a just, lasting and comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should remain a priority for the countries of the region and the international community as a whole, based upon a two-state solution in which Israel and Palestine live side by side in peace and security. If an agreement was reached by the parties, if the two parties asked for NATO's help to assist them in implementing such an agreement and if there was a U.N. mandate, then I think that NATO should be ready to respond positively to such a request. But these are three big Ifs.

Speaking of that political setting, your predecessors, as well as yourself just now, have been careful to reiterate the conditions for NATO involvement in safeguarding peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors - the emerging state of Palestine, Syria, Lebanon. Namely, peace accords, mutual invitations and UNSC resolutions. But this tactic has not helped to break the logjam. Could you not boldly reverse the order and put out a proposal challenging the various sides to go for interim agreements of a security nature, with NATO forces separating the neighbors for the duration of these agreements as an inducement for permanent accords?

As I have said, NATO is not a party to the Middle East peace process. So it is not up to NATO to propose anything to this end. And frankly, I don't think it would help things.

How do you define "terror"? In your view, are Hamas and Hezbollah terror organizations? What is your opinion of states that sponsor them, mostly Iran and Syria?

Terrorism is not easy to define on paper; even the U.N. didn't manage. But we all know terrorism when we see it, as we did just recently in Moscow, and as you in Israel have done so many times. Israel knows this threat well. There can be no justification for anyone, political movement or state, to perpetrate violence deliberately targeting civilians. Terrorism is one of the main threats that the Alliance will continue to face in the coming decade. The fight against terrorism is one of the objectives of our practical cooperation in the Mediterranean Dialogue, including with Israel.

At Lisbon, in an obvious attempt to take account of Turkish sensitivities, you left out an explicit reference to Iran in your missile defense plan. Do you consider Iran a threat to the populations of Alliance member states? Is it conceivable that in an Article 5 situation, whereby a member state such as the USA finds itself in a military clash with Iran, NATO would help it the same way the Alliance acted after 9/11?

The Lisbon Summit Declaration stated that NATO heads of state and government continue to be concerned about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. They also recalled their Declaration at the Strasbourg-Kehl Summit, where they expressed serious concern with Iran's nuclear program. And they called upon Iran to comply fully and without delay with all relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions. In addition, over 30 countries have acquired or are in the process of acquiring ballistic missiles - so the threat is real and growing.

There should be no ambiguity when it comes to collective defense in NATO. If any country carries out an armed attack against a NATO state, all Allies will consider that an attack against them as well. No one should doubt NATO's determination to defend its members.

Plans for an Israel Navy missile boat participation in Operation Active Endeavour have been promised but not delivered upon, first due to legal obstacles and lately because of Turkish hostility. When will Israel see its vessel and sailors join other navies in securing the Med?

Under Operation Active Endeavour, NATO ships are patrolling the Mediterranean, monitoring shipping in order to help detect, deter and protect against terrorist activity in the Mediterranean. Israel is currently contributing with a liaison officer at our Joint Forces Command in Naples, a contribution well appreciated by NATO. NATO is currently reviewing its maritime operations. Once that review has been completed, we will revert to Israel's offer to enhance its contribution with a ship.


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