Monday, 23 March 2009

NATO – a Middle East Peacekeeper?

With the Strasbourg-Kehl Summit fast approaching, the debate about the future of NATO, and in particular the ambition of some within the Alliance to have it become a ‘global security provider’, is taking some interesting twists and turns. It may soon coincide with the Obama administration’s action on the Arab-Israeli peace process, which under the new leadership of Presidential Envoy George Mitchell is far more dynamic already than under President Bush.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer visited Israel in January as part of the Alliance’s Mediterranean Dialogue. One issue for discussion was a potential role for NATO as a future peacekeeper if the parties to the peace process are able to come to a final accord on Palestine and Israel.

The idea that NATO troops might be deployed in the Middle East has been on the agenda for a year or more (I noted it in another piece on Israeli-NATO links here). Retired US Marine General James Jones (a former NATO SACEUR and now President Obama’s National Security Advisor) is a key proponent of the concept.

In an interview with Ha’aretz, de Hoop Scheffer said that:

I believe, however, that in the context of a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, should all parties ask for NATO's assistance in implementing such an agreement and should there be a UN mandate, then the North Atlantic Council would certainly discuss it. Personally, I think the answer would be positive.

This declaration of intent comes with a caveat. The Secretary General says that he is not including Gaza in this possible deployment, believing such a deployment to be beyond the realms of the possible for NATO. Indeed, even General Jones has, for the moment, only proposed a NATO force for the West Bank to answer Israeli security concerns after a peace deal. He restated this proposal late last year to Israeli officials while acting as then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s envoy to the region. The Israeli Defence Force was unenthusiastic.

During his meetings with Israelis, Jones has proposed that a NATO-based international force deploy in the West Bank in the interim period between an Israeli withdrawal and the Palestinian forces becoming able to curb terror activity....The IDF is particularly wary of such a plan, a top IDF officer said, who added that the military's operational freedom in the territories was responsible for the drop in terrorist attacks. "NATO is a very bad idea," the officer said. "No other country in the world has successfully dealt with terror like Israel has. There is a need for continuous combat; NATO will not want to endanger its soldiers on behalf of Israeli citizens."

Would NATO be a good candidate to run a peacekeeping force for the United Nations after an Arab-Israeli peace deal? There are arguments on both sides. There is a good mix within the Alliance of countries who are seen to favour one side or the other, so both sides could expect even-handed enforcement of a peace deal. On the other hand the US influence over the Alliance, and its deep connection to Israel might be seen as tipping NATO too far one way to allow for true impartiality. There are a lot of questions that would need to be answered before NATO could be seen as the logical candidate for Middle East peacekeeper.

Can the IDF be persuaded that NATO can do the job of ensuring Israeli security? And conversely, what would the Palestinian Authority security apparatus feel about NATO’s role. NATO does not have a stellar record of success in Afghanistan. Political divisions have severely undermined efforts to build security there, and this cannot be allowed to happen again. Will NATO’s increasingly close links with Israel – the two partners have conducted joint military exercises in recent years – be a foundation for future trust, or for mistrust? NATO also has good links with some Arab nations such as Jordan and Egypt. How would this affect a peacekeeping role? If NATO would not be prepared to police an agreement in Gaza, then who would? And without a neutral peacekeeper there, what would an agreement be worth?

Pondering these questions, it becomes clear why the debate about a possible global role for NATO in the future is so fraught. Of course, a peaceful Middle East would represent a huge increase in stability and security for NATO’s southern flank. No other organisation has the ability to put together a multi-national command structure of the kind that NATO can. On the other hand, the idea of 26 (or by then) 28 Ambassadors trying to micromanage an operation in such difficult circumstances is impossible to imagine. Structural reform of NATO to allow operational commanders to run matters in the field would be essential, naturally after the North Atlantic Council had agreed a mission by consensus.

These are big topics, and this is why NATO needs a Strategic Concept review.

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