The Time is Ripe for Israel’s Accession to NATO

Reports now indicate that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is getting cold feet regarding a deal to normalize relations with Turkey.  His incredulity is justified given Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s behavior towards the Jewish state since the Mavi Marmara Gaza flotilla incident of 2010, a deadly standoff at sea that left 8 Turkish nationals dead at the hands of the IDF.  Erdogan’s campaign of vile rhetoric toward Israel and his support for Hamas are enough to give Netanyahu pause in signing any reconciliation agreement.  There is no guarantee that Turkey’s recent overtures are not merely smoke and mirrors, an ephemeral gesture of appeasement to Unites States interlocutors working hard to find a resolution to this bilateral conflict.

Erdogan’s anti-Israel stance hasn’t been just rhetorical.  Turkey has undertaken great efforts to isolate Israel as punishment for Mavi Marmara, including attempts to downgrade Israel’s relations with key international institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  Such efforts, so easily taken by Turkey due to NATO’s consensus-based treaty (any member can veto any proposal), have put Israel’s security at risk.  To quell Netanyahu’s reasonable cynicism regarding Turkish motives, any normalization agreement should incorporate Turkey’s willingness to accept Israel as a full member state of NATO.  Such a move would not only send a strong message to Israel that Turkey’s intentions are pure, it would make Israel more secure and help stabilize the Middle East, a region currently ablaze from the fires of war.

This is not to say Israel would aggressively push for NATO membership if Turkey guaranteed it wouldn’t veto an Israeli bid, but it should.  Much was discussed regarding NATO’s role during the recent U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry-led negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).  A NATO presence in the Jordan Valley was proposed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas yet rejected by Netanyahu, a man whose faith in Israel’s security belongs to the IDF and the IDF alone.  Israel’s policy of military self-reliance is well known, and in this context perhaps logical given the intricacies of West Bank security and the record of ineffective international peacekeeping missions such as those stationed in southern Lebanon and in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Created in 1949 against the backdrop of World War II, the beginning of the Cold War and the threat of Soviet aggression, NATO is a military alliance composed of 28 states.  The treaty itself, namely Article 5, considers an attack on one member as an attack on all members.  This notion of “collective defense” provides an umbrella of deterrence, ostensibly lessening the likelihood of armed aggression against member states.  If Israel’s primary threat is Iran and the militarization of its nuclear program as Netanyahu has repeatedly stated, NATO membership would be an invaluable asset in deterring its Persian foe and in strengthening the U.S. hand in the current negotiations.

Full NATO membership, as opposed to a limited and foreign-led NATO deployment in the Jordan Valley, would allow Israel to retain security control in the West Bank until a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinian leadership is forged, and would allay some of its legitimate security concerns once a Palestinian state is established along its eastern border.  Finally, admission into NATO would bolster Israel’s international legitimacy currently eroding due to the success of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the punitive measures taken against Israel by the European Union (EU).  As Israel’s international isolation increases, participation in respected international institutions will assist in bringing it back into the community of nations.

In terms of deterrence under NATO’s “all for one, one for all” doctrine, the value added of Israeli NATO membership cannot be overestimated regarding the Iranian nuclear file.  Such a move would increase Kerry’s negotiating power with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.  The threat of a NATO military response to Iranian foot-dragging, deception, or cheating in any way on the interim deal or a final deal would change the dynamics of the negotiating process and provide a push for the Iranians to sign a deal more satisfactory to Israel and the West.

The time is now ripe for Israel to push Turkey on this issue.  Turkey’s local elections are now over and Erdogan’s Justice & Development party (AKP) consolidated power in most localities, and thus Erdogan’s path to the office of president in August is virtually guaranteed.  He is now freer to move away from his conservative base in making foreign-policy decisions.  Also making the time right for this move is Turkey’s newfound isolation.  Its drastic moves toward authoritarianism, its violation of basic freedoms domestically, its divergent interests with NATO regarding Syrian military intervention, its tacit support of jihadist groups operating within Syria, its sanction-busting oil for gold deals with Iran, its outreach to China and other repressive regimes around the world, combined with its misplaced confidence in the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements, have made it a veritable outcast in the region.

Turkey may be finally realizing its belligerent stance toward Israel has had the effect of possibly shutting it out of the lucrative natural gas finds off the coast of the Eastern Mediterranean.  Israel, Greece, and Cyprus have been collaborating on a pipeline that will bring in billions of dollars in revenue.  Turkey was once thought to be the host of the pipeline to Europe and a primary beneficiary of Israel’s natural gas located in the Leviathan and Tamar fields.  However, other options are now on the table due to the diplomatic standoff between Israel and Turkey.  Turkey is the only actor in the region whose market for gas is increasing, so Turkey has both huge financial and energy incentives to restore and even upgrade its pre-2010 ties with the Jewish state.  Netanyahu knows this, as his recalcitrance toward an agreement has proven.  If he is waiting for something better than what is now on the table, it is advisable he broach the topic of NATO accession.

To allay Western concerns and continue along the path of EU membership, Turkey would be wise to allow Israel into NATO.  It would help restore Turkish influence both regionally and globally.  As for NATO, courting Israel would help assure Israel’s natural gas flows to Europe, a continent now heavily reliant on Russia for energy.  Israel’s supply of natural gas to Europe would obviate the need for Europe to take an effete stance in the face of Russian aggression – an issue critical to NATO deterrence – like we are now witnessing in the Ukraine.  Bringing Israel into NATO would also help restore Israeli confidence in Europe, also now at an all-time low, and would provide a neutral forum through which true Turkish-Israeli rapprochement could be achieved.  Finally, it would provide NATO with a strong, stable, militarily advanced, democratically like-minded, but most importantly, a reliable ally in the heart of the Middle East, where war is spreading like wildfire.

As for potential obstacles, Russia would not be as alarmed if NATO expanded to Israel, as the Jewish state, unlike Georgia or the Ukraine, is not within Russia’s traditional sphere of influence.  Israel poses no threat to Russia; in fact, the two will likely become business partners in the Eastern Mediterranean where Israeli natural gas finds will probably result in lucrative deals with Russia’s state-owned Gazprom, which has experience in construction and extraction.  Russian President Vladimir Putin would still have some leverage over Israel should it be a NATO member state, as Israel needs Russia for a resolution of the Iranian nuclear file and the possible sale of the S-300 anti-aircraft system to Iran or its proxies in Syria and Hezbollah.  In fact, Israel has warmed to Russia recently given the Obama administration’s perceived bias toward the Palestinian side of the negotiating table.  The most salient example of this shift in Israeli policy is Israel’s abstention from the U.S. led United Nations vote condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea.  The significance of this abstention is great considering Israel almost invariably relies on U.S. veto support at the United Nations Security Council.

As for possible Arab blowback from Israeli inclusion into NATO, there is little likelihood this will occur.  Jordan and Egypt do not fear a NATO presence in the region, nor do the Palestinians (under an admittedly different context).  To the contrary, NATO already has established relations with both Egypt and Jordan, which could serve as a bridge for relations with the PA, whose police force is trained in Jordan.  One U.S. General recently proposed Israel upgrade its missile defense system to include Jordan and Egypt.  NATO was welcomed to the region during the Libyan revolution.  Qatar, the UAE, and Jordan all helped NATO in Operation Unified Protection.  Moreover, the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) states of the Arabian Peninsula are forming their own missile defense shield due to the Iranian threat.  On this issue, the Gulf States have a mutual security interest with Israel.  An additional layer of missile defense protection provided by NATO to the region would likely be met with enthusiasm by the GCC states.  Thus, the regional effect of Israel’s accession to NATO could very well be minimal – at least from the Arab states with which Israel has peace treaties or mutual security interests regarding Iran.

This leaves the issue of the U.S. position.  It is hard to imagine the U.S. not fully supporting an Israeli bid to join NATO.  NATO membership would spread the risk and financial burden now shouldered by the United States of preserving Israel’s security and military superiority vis a vis Israel’s manifold enemies.  This is especially true as U.S. policy is geared to pivot away from the Middle East and towards Asia.  Full NATO membership would help the U.S. and President Barak Obama’s legacy with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as NATO membership would ameliorate some of the legitimate security concerns Israel has with regards to ceding territory to the Palestinians (or to the Syrians with respect to the Golan Heights – a strategic military asset).  It could also deter Israel’s enemy to the north in Hezbollah, lowering the risk of a flare-up along the Israeli-Lebanese border and therefore providing more stability to the region.

Aside from Turkey, the real obstacles to accession, perhaps ironically, come from within Israel and NATO, where military experts have historically opted for a de-facto rather than de-jure affiliation.  Detractors within Israel are concerned with NATO membership imposing limitations on Israeli military flexibility.  Detractors within NATO are concerned with Israel’s history of hot and cold wars with its neighbors (Israel is still technically at war with both Syria and Lebanon), its lack of internationally accepted borders, and the lack of resolution on the Palestinian issue.  Some within NATO consider Israeli membership a burden that would add new unnecessary risks to the organization.

With that said, time has changed Israel’s threat matrix, and on the flip side, NATO’s goals have changed as well.  NATO and Israel both share an interest in missile defense; in fact, it is now a priority of both actors.  Israel already has a robust missile defense program.  Its native Iron Dome and Arrow II systems, as well as American-made Patriot batteries, are deployed throughout the country.  In addition, Israel’s advanced military apparatus, its sophisticated intelligence and reconnaissance abilities, its counter-terrorism and cyber-security expertise, and its geo-strategic positioning make it a strong contender for NATO membership.  While the above-mentioned questions of heightened risk for NATO and military inflexibility for Israel should not be discounted, these costs are now outweighed by the benefits of Israel’s inclusion in NATO.

The idea of bringing Israel into NATO is not new.  The debate over the scope of Israel’s relationship with NATO goes back to the days of Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, who argued for full NATO membership.  Israel is already moving towards NATO – though not aggressively enough – notwithstanding Turkish attempts to the contrary.  With Israeli-NATO interests now aligned on virtually every front, and Turkey’s negotiating power with Israel at its nadir, it would be prudent for Netanyahu to demand that any normalization agreement with Turkey affirm Israel’s right to full NATO membership.

About the Author
Nicholas Saidel is Associate Director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis & Response (ISTAR) at the University of Pennsylvania