istanbul | NATO is trying to set a new direction as the security organization expands its relationship with seven Middle Eastern countries, including Israel.
For the past decade, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has maintained what it calls its Mediterranean Dialogue with Jordan, Mauritania, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Israel. The program has consisted until now of limited political consultations with the countries involved, rather than deep engagement.
But organization officials said NATO plans to expand the program to the level of a "partnership." The plans were discussed at the security organization’s summit in Istanbul, which ended Tuesday, June 29.
"We’re talking about a major upgrade of the Mediterranean Dialogue program, that involves both the political dimension of the dialogue" and "the announcement of practical areas of cooperation," a senior NATO official said.
"We’re not talking about NATO membership and we’re not talking about backdoor membership. We are talking about cooperating in the security sphere in fighting terrorism, in sharing intelligence possibly in joint military activities, crisis management operations," the official said. "These countries will not be part of NATO but will be working with NATO as part of a special partnership."
For example, the navies of Israel and the other dialogue countries will be invited to join NATO operations aimed at ending the smuggling of arms and materials used in weapons of mass destruction.
Analysts said NATO’s plans to increase its engagement with Middle East countries are indicative of the organization’s search for a new identity in the post-Cold War world.
"NATO is not what it used to be. It used to be a passive defensive alliance. Now it’s an active security alliance," said Chris Donnelly, a senior fellow at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom.
"NATO recognizes that if countries want it to solve their external security problems, it has to go to where their problems are coming from."
NATO is modeling the enhanced dialogue on the Partnership for Peace program, which helped bring the former Soviet bloc countries into the security organization’s orbit. Most of those countries subsequently joined NATO.
"We see this dialogue as very positive, and we think it can be expanded and widened," said Oded Eran, Israel’s ambassador to the European Union, in Brussels. "I think both sides have an interest in increasing their cooperation and that’s what we are going to see."
The dialogue will be bilateral, with NATO dealing with each of the seven countries on an individual basis. Eran said he believes greater cooperation with NATO also could have a positive effect on regional relations.
"I think we could see improved relations with all these countries, including ones that we don’t have formal relations with," he said.
NATO also announced at the Istanbul summit an initiative to expand its engagement with countries in the "broader Middle East region." The first step in this initiative will be increased security cooperation with the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.