Saturday, February 12, 2011

Middle East: NATO Ready to Facilitate Middle East Peace

NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen and Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu |

By Bernhard Schell Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsReport

AMMAN (IDN) – As uncertainty and suspense about an emerging new Egypt and its impact on the Middle East grip the international community, the Euro-U.S. military alliance NATO has offered to serve as a facilitator, though in a rather circumspect manner.

"Through its Mediterranean partnership, NATO can help the region by acting as a facilitator, building closer ties between the stakeholders and providing a venue for a security dialogue," the alliance's Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told an international gathering in Israel.

"Our own countries in Europe have set aside their differences to build security mechanisms that allow them to address the challenges of tomorrow. The Middle East does not have to be an exception and I believe that Israel can play a leading role in that endeavour," Rasmussen said.

He added: "Of course, pending a comprehensive Middle East Peace Settlement, this seems almost utopian. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may no longer be perceived as the only problem in the region, but it still constitutes a major impediment in addressing other issues that threaten regional stability. The lack of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to undermine the stability of the region."

Rasmussen was addressing the 11th annual Herzliya Conference on February 9, 2011 in the Israeli city of Herzliya, named after Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism.

Explaining the rationale behind the Herzliya Conference, the 'Interdisciplinary Center' (IDC), which organised the gathering, said: "Early 2011 is likely to be a critical juncture of game-changing developments requiring international decision-making regarding a broad and daunting array of issues to include strategic directions of the key regional actors, the Middle East Peace Process, the future of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, domestic political stability in the Middle East, energy and natural resource security and geopolitics, regional and global economic governance, as well as new forms of cyber and missile warfare and the attempts to curb nuclear proliferation" -- all issues of crucial interest to the 28-nation NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization).

These issues indeed drew the focus, prompting Rasmussen to say: "I do not have illusions about NATO’s role in providing security in the region: NATO cannot solve all the problems and it never intended to do so. After all, Mediterranean partners never expected such a thing from NATO. But we can still provide a substantial added value in the region."

According to the IDC, the deliberations at Herzliya also addressed "Israeli responses to these challenges and strategies to pro-actively confront the 'soft war' launched against the legitimacy of Israel's right to self-defense, its inherent obligation to vigorously pursue its national interests, and even its very existence as a Jewish state."

Responding to Israeli concerns, he assured that "in times of upheaval such as this, you can count on established partnerships. Indeed, I am here to speak about a better future: the future of NATO's relations with Israel and the other Mediterranean partners."

According to Rasmussen, a better future depends: on how common threats and challenges are defined; on finding common solutions; and on "our understanding that we share a common destiny".

NATO is presently not involved in the Middle East peace process. In fact, any possible NATO involvement is linked to three 'IF's': if a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians was reached; if both parties requested that NATO should help them with the implementation of that agreement; and if the United Nations endorsed NATO’s possible involvement.

The NATO chief said there was a common destiny which bonds Allies and the Mediterranean. "A strong and dynamic relationship between the Euro-Atlantic countries and Israel is a key part of it. We have much in common, not least a pluralist democracy, a robust public debate and a lively media scene. But stability and prosperity can only come from within the region. And stability and prosperity will only survive if the regional players want to be engaged."

A new and different challenge emerging across the region, Rasmussen said, was the need to address the demand of Arab societies for democratic reforms. "We monitor the situation very closely -- Egypt and Tunisia are valued members of the Mediterranean Dialogue (established in 1994) I have urged all parties to engage without delay in an open dialogue, to ensure a peaceful, democratic and speedy transition with full respect of human rights."

Rasmussen said: "Though we are only at the beginning, I am confident that our new Mediterranean Dialogue partnership will better address the threats and challenges of tomorrow. I can see three priority areas where there is scope for improvement: political consultations, practical cooperation and operations."

The first priority area, he explained, are political consultations on a bilateral and multilateral basis. The Mediterranean Dialogue provides the tools to engage in a genuine exchange of views on all the issues of common concern. "It is up to us to expand the range and intensity of these discussions. We must take our dialogue further and address those issues that really matter.

Secondly, NATO has taken the decision to further expand its practical cooperation with the Mediterranean. It is extending the range of activities together with all Mediterranean partners: from around 700 to more than 1600. "When it comes to cooperation projects, there is no longer any distinction between the Mediterranean countries and the Euro-Atlantic partners," the NATO chief said.

Among the areas where the NATO and Mediterranean countries we can work together are: civil emergency planning, military-to-military cooperation, and the fight against terrorism. An evidence of cooperation in civil emergency is that in December 2010 several NATO Allies contributed to the Israeli effort to extinguish the fires that ravaged the North of the country. This cooperation could be taken further through joint training, joint exercises and greater connectivity between our emergency centres, Rasmussen said.

To ensure the protection of its Allies, NATO is developing new capabilities to meet new threats and challenges, such as Missile and Cyber defence, he told the gathering.

The third priority is joint operations. Several Mediterranean partners are taking part in NATO's ongoing operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan. "These contributions are important in themselves. However, it is also important to set a clear framework, within which Mediterranean partners could further participate in NATO-led operations."

The NATO Secretary-General said that since the beginning, Israel had been one of the "most dynamic participants" in the Mediterranean Dialogue. This initiative had gathered Israel and its Arab partners around the same table, engaging them in a political and security dialogue, and touching on military cooperation. "That was an achievement which we should not underestimate," he said.

The Mediterranean Dialogue was not taking place in a vacuum. It was established soon after the Oslo accords and the Israeli-Jordanian Peace Treaty. "You could say that, it was the Age of Optimism in the Middle East. I am an optimist by nature, but I am also a realist. So I attach particular importance to the changing regional dynamics and what they mean for the longer term security of the region."

Rasmussen said new threats had become more prominent in the wider region. Issues such as nuclear proliferation, ballistic missile proliferation or terrorism constitute problems not only for the Middle East but also for the NATO.

NATO's New Strategic Concept that was adopted in Lisbon (in November 2010) makes it very clear that the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, and their means of delivery, threatens incalculable consequences for global stability and prosperity. During the next decade, NATO expects proliferation to be most acute in some of the world’s most volatile regions.

The NATO chief perceives the rapid increase in the deployment of conventional ballistic missiles a clear danger. Currently, over 30 states have or are in the process of acquiring such weapons. And some of them can already strike NATO Allies.

Against this backdrop, the decision to develop a Missile Defence Capability, taken at the NATO Summit in Lisbon, underlines the commitment by the Alliance to acquire the necessary means to address these threats.

A new and different challenge emerging across the region, Rasmussen said, was the need to address the demand of Arab societies for democratic reforms. "We monitor the situation very closely -- Egypt and Tunisia are valued members of the Mediterranean Dialogue. I have urged all parties to engage without delay in an open dialogue, to ensure a peaceful, democratic and speedy transition with full respect of human rights."

For over 30 years, Egypt has played a key moderating role in the region. And the NATO wants that Egypt remains "a force for peace and stability". (IDN-InDepthNews/11.02.2011)