The North Atlantic Council on Wednesday agreed to allow Israel and four other non-NATO members to open diplomatic missions to its headquarters in Brussels.
In Israel's case, permission to open an office in NATO — where ambassadors and attaches would have upgraded access to exercises, events and alliance-related procurement programs — has been blocked by Turkey, a member state whose assent was required by NATO's rules of unanimous consent.
The decisions make good on invitations first extended in 2011 to allow the seven members of the so-called Mediterranean Dialogue — which includes Israel and Jordan — and the Istanbul Initiative comprised of Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and UAE to open liaison offices to NATO."The North Atlantic Council has agreed that, following their individual requests, Jordan, Israel, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait will establish diplomatic missions to NATO headquarters," noted a May 4 statement from the 28-member alliance.
Turkey essentially severed ties with Israel, a former strategic and defense trade partner, following the killing of nine Turkish activists in a May 2010 raid of a ship aiming to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. For years, the two have been negotiating terms and conditions for renormalization of ties, and both sides have reported reaching a breakthrough stage in recent weeks.
"Implementation of this long-standing invitation shows that something is happening in the context of Israel-Turkish relations. Turkey has obviously relaxed its preventive policies," said Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the EU who helped craft the framework of the seven-nation Mediterranean Dialogue of 1994.
According to Eran, Israel has maintained numerous direct and indirect channels to NATO, but none of them were operating directly out of alliance headquarters in Brussels. "Israel's military attaché in the Hague covers from a distance. It's not a daily presence. So the fact that we'll now have permanent and daily access to NATO headquarters provides greater opportunities for cooperation."
Members of the Knessett visit NATO headquarters on Feb. 17, 2016, in Brussels. From left: Merav Michaeli, Tzachi Hanegbi, NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, Michael Oren and Yaakov Perry.
Photo Credit: NATO
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed NATO's decision and said his government would soon open the long-planned headquarter's mission.
"This is a goal that we have worked on for many years and I announce that Israel will accept will accept the invitation," Netanyahu told Cabinet ministers on Wednesday.
Netanyahu did not address Turkey's past rejectionist stance or its apparent change of view, but noted that Wednesday's announcement was "an important expression of Israel's standing in the world."
"The countries of the world are looking to cooperate with us due to — inter alia — our determined fight against terrorism, our technological know-how and our intelligence services," Netanyahu said.
Zaki Shalom, a senior research fellow at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, said the NATO announcement was more symbolic than strategically substantive. "It's not as if Israel is becoming a NATO member. It certainly doesn't commit NATO allies to come to our aid if under attack, which in any case is something we don't need or want."
Nevertheless, Shalom said the decision might have some deterrent effect "if countries somehow perceive Israel to be connected to NATO."
"What's really important is that it demonstrates the warming of relations with Turkey, since decisions taken by NATO must be approved by all the members," he said. "If Turkey wasn't close to settling all its differences with Israee, I doubt that NATO would have published that statement today," Shalom added.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.