Will Israel ever join NATO

Martin van Creveld presents an Israeli’s view of Israeli-NATO relations and prospects for peace in the Middle East from a historical perspective.

How do Israelis see NATO, and what role may the latter play in helping resolve the Middle East conflict? To answer these questions, one must start from the fact that Israel's foreign policy and defence establishment has no great liking for international organisations. The reasons are obvious. For much of its history Israel has been a semi-pariah state. The number of Arab states, of which there are 14, and Muslim ones, of which there are dozens, means that every time an international gathering takes place, Jerusalem is liable to find itself in a minority of one.

Israel's relations with the United Nations, as the most important international organisation, illustrate this situation well. The Jewish state's right to exist was confirmed by the General Assembly in November 1947 when it approved the partition of Palestine by a two-thirds majority. Later, as UN membership expanded and the Cold War caused both superpowers to compete for the loyalty of new members, things changed. No country has been censured more often either by the General Assembly or by the Security Council. Indeed, frequently the only thing that stood between Israel and still more condemnation was the United States. Nor has Jerusalem ever been able to secure a seat on the Security Council for itself.

On the face of it, Israeli relations with NATO ought to be better. Founded only a year after Israel, NATO was made up of Christian states, with, from 1952, one exception – Turkey. No NATO member had a fundamental quarrel with the existence of the Jewish state, and most had voted in favour of its creation. Furthermore, Israel's own values have always been liberal – albeit, initially with a strong socialist twist – and democratic. Partly for this reason, partly because Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion feared his country would find itself isolated in the event of another World War, Jerusalem took a pro-Western stance in the Cold War. For this, of course, there was a price to pay. The more pro-Western Jerusalem's position, the more problematic its relations with the Eastern Bloc.

During the 1950s, many Israelis believed themselves in mortal danger from the surrounding Arab world. Looking for allies, they would have loved their country to join NATO or at least become an affiliate member. A cartoon of that time, published in Israel's leading newspaper Ma'ariv, illustrated that desire very well. It showed an arm, marked "NATO", reaching across the Mediterranean and drawing a tooth, in the form of Israel, from the Middle East, which the draftsman had twisted into the form of a human face. It was not to be.

Throughout the 1950s and the early 1960s NATO's leading member, the United States, feared that by supporting Israel it would drive Arab states into Soviet arms. Hence it not only rejected any idea of permitting Israel to join the organisation but adopted a rather anti-Israeli policy. First, it refused to sell Israel arms, a policy it maintained even after the so-called "Czech arms deal" of 1955 upset the military balance in the Middle East and which lasted well into the Kennedy Administration. Next, by sending an ultimatum to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, President Dwight D. Eisenhower joined with Soviet Head of State Nikita Khrushchev to force Israel to give up the Sinai Peninsula shortly after overrunning it in 1956. Moreover, Washington did what it could to obstruct Israel's nascent nuclear programme by allowing pictures taken by U-2 spy planes revealing its existence to be published in The New York Times. Subsequently, President John F. Kennedy sent several threatening messages to Ben-Gurion, contributing to the latter's decision to resign in July of that year.

Israeli relations with NATO ought to be better

Jerusalem was, nevertheless, able to maintain normal diplomatic relations with most NATO members, including even the Federal Republic of Germany from 1965. With France it developed a special relationship that started in 1955 and, before coming to an end in the mid-1960s, enabled Israel to purchase the arms it needed to survive. However, the ties in question were established between Israel and individual NATO members rather than between it and the organisation as such. Seen from Paris and later from Brussels, Israel was geographically remote from the part of the world NATO had been created to defend. The country lacked a strong military, important mineral resources and a vital geographical position. Hence it did not matter much. Seen from Israel, NATO did not matter much either. This came to light in the summer of 1956. In preparation for the coming Sinai campaign, Shimon Peres, then 33 and director general of the Defence Ministry, provided the General Staff with a thorough briefing on the way European policy-making circles perceived Israel. In the records of the meeting, NATO is not even mentioned.

As Franco-Israeli relations deteriorated in the 1960s, the United States, now under President Lyndon B. Johnson, stepped in. It started selling Jerusalem arms – first anti-aircraft missiles, then tanks and finally attack aircraft as well. After the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War the ties with Washington grew much stronger with Israel effectively becoming a US protégé. Again, however, NATO was only involved, if at all, on the margins. In fact, things may have worked the other way around. Israel's existence now appeared guaranteed by US support. With that in mind, many other NATO members may have felt that moral obligations towards the Jewish state, which they had incurred during the Holocaust, no longer applied. They left it to Washington to carry the Israeli ball into the Arab court. Having done so, they felt free to develop their own ties with that court, selling Arab states arms and recycling petrodollars.

In this way, in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the United States sent its aircraft to re-supply Israel in what was a life or death struggle. By contrast, all other NATO countries except Portugal refused the United States bases to refuel its aircraft. In 1982, the United States signed a "memorandum of strategic agreement" with Israel and set up some depots there. NATO did nothing. In 1991, the United States and Germany, but not NATO as such, did something to help Israel when the latter was attacked by Iraqi missiles. Until this year, Israeli forces were only allowed to participate in the military exercises of some NATO members, such as Turkey and the United States, but not in those of the organisation as a whole. Responding in kind, Israel has often treated the Alliance with a mixture of pique and contempt, exemplified by its refusal to send students to the NATO Defense College in Rome, despite repeated invitations.

Until the end of the Cold War NATO’s mission was to defend the “West" against a possible Soviet onslaught, even though it always refused to include Israel in the "West". The collapse of the Soviet Union brought that mission to an end, causing Israelis to take even less interest in whatever the organisation may have had to offer. Another reason for this was because Israel's own armed forces, having started from modest beginnings, were now as powerful as those of any NATO country except the United States. Comparing military hardware and stockpiles as recorded by the Military Balance for example, Israeli planners did not see much that most NATO countries could do to aid them in the event of another 1973-style emergency.

While Israeli relations with long-standing NATO members remained as ambiguous as ever, Jerusalem was able to develop good ones with some of the Eastern European countries aspiring to join the organisation in the 1990s. Many of those countries had a long anti-Semitic tradition, one which the last two decades of the Cold War (when all but Romania broke diplomatic ties with Israel) had done nothing to dissipate. Now, however, several Eastern European governments convinced themselves that the road to Washington led through Jerusalem – an idea which, while itself based on anti-Semitic stereotypes, served to enhance the latter's status in Budapest, Prague, Warsaw and other capitals. Moreover, during the 1970s and 1980s Israel itself had built a large and modern arms industry that had much to offer NATO's new members. The more so because the arms it provided, unlike those originating in many other countries, came without political strings attached.

To the extent that NATO still had a mission, many Israelis regarded it with scepticism. This fact was evident in the spring of 1999 when the Alliance launched an air campaign against Belgrade because of the latter's crackdown in Kosovo. This is hardly the place to argue the rights and wrongs of Operation Allied Force. Suffice it to say that the views of many Israelis, including then Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon who published an article on the matter, were coloured by their perceptions of events in the former Yugoslavia during the Second World War. As a result, far from backing NATO’s intervention, many Israelis sympathised with the Serbs. When the second Palestinian Uprising started in the fall of 2000 and led to many casualties, a few went further still. They wondered what might happen if one day they too felt compelled to take off the kid gloves and deal with terrorism once and for all. Might not NATO try to do to them what it was doing to Serbia?

To be sure, Israel has participated in NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue since its inception in 1994. Indeed, it became in 2001 the first participating country to sign a security agreement with NATO, providing the framework for the protection of classified information. Moreover, in the past year a further improvement in the atmosphere could be discerned. Israel took part in the first Mediterranean Dialogue-NATO meeting at the level of foreign ministers in December 2004. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer visited Israel in February of this year. A first joint Israel-NATO naval exercise took place in March in Israeli waters. Israel was admitted as a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in May. And Israeli troops participated in NATO exercises in both the Mediterranean and Ukraine in June.

Despite these developments, however, relations between Israel and NATO, as opposed to those between the former and several important NATO members, have long been characterised by a mixture of disregard and mistrust. On the one hand, Israel, recalling its experience with UN peacekeepers in Lebanon (where they served mainly to shelter Hezbollah), remains as firmly opposed to any stationing of NATO troops in the Occupied West Bank as it has ever been. On the other, Secretary General De Hoop Scheffer took care to tell the whole world during his visit to Israel that Israeli membership in the Alliance was no more on the cards today than it had been when the idea was first floated half a century earlier. Clearly, on both sides, a fundamental change of heart has yet to take place. Until it does, anything else they do will remain largely symbolic.

What is published in NATO Review does not necessarily represent the official position or policy of member governments, or of NATO.

About the Author

Martin van Creveld is a professor at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and author of many classic books on military history and strategy, including “Command in War” 1985), “Supplying War” (1977) and “The Sword and the Olive” (1998).