NATO’s other member state

26 May 2010

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NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in 2001. (Sgt. Brandon Aird)


Israel’s worst-kept secret has finally been revealed.

Documents published in recent days show that Israel not only has nuclear weapons — something it has never officially acknowledged — but that it considered selling them to South Africa’s white minority government in 1975. The evidence — contained in Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s new book The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa — appears strong and credible.

But will it cause Europe and America to rethink their relationship with Israel? The truth is that Israel already enjoys such a privileged level of access to their key institutions that any rethink is improbable — at least in the short-term. One of the most important aspects of this relationship relates to how Israel interacts with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

In December 2008, then-Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni visited the headquarters of NATO in Brussels to sign an “individual cooperation program” with its member states. By hooking up Israel to NATO’s computer systems and facilitating its increased participation in the alliance’s missions, this agreement has helped give Israel closer ties with NATO and its 28 member states than any other country outside the club.

Within a few weeks of that agreement being signed, Israel launched a brutal offensive against Gaza, killing more than 1,400 Palestinians. The slaughter did not deter then-NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer from making a public gesture of friendship with the Israeli state. While the death toll in Gaza was continuing to mount, he visited Israel in January 2009 to celebrate “the growing depth both of our practical cooperation and of our political dialogue.” Even though Israel’s armed forces caused almost all of the deaths in that three-week assault and had unilaterally broken off a ceasefire with Hamas by attacking it two months earlier, he repeated the official Israeli narrative of blaming the violence on Hamas.

Over the past week, NATO has published a paper recommending an update to the “strategic concept” that underpins its activities. Partly authored by Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, this report “NATO 2020: Assured Security; Dynamic Engagement,” signals that the alliance is mired in a Cold War funk. As well as advocating that the US, Britain and France hold on to their nuclear missiles as long as these weapons “remain a reality in international relations,” it identifies the development of a missile defense shield as “an essential military mission.” This system is — if you believe the propaganda — supposed to protect the member countries against Iran, which is singled out as the state most likely to present a fundamental security challenge in the coming decade. Substitute Iran for the Soviet Union and the case for the system is almost identical to that put forward by US President Ronald Reagan when proposing his “Star Wars” initiative in the 1980s.

NATO has already signaled that Israel will be involved in the development of the defense shield (an Orwellian term, given that the project will probably only ratchet up tensions in the Middle East). Earlier this month, NATO representatives took part in an armaments conference in Airport City, a “business park” near Tel Aviv. Alan Berry, a senior NATO official, confirmed that he and his colleagues were studying Israel’s own military interceptors and had helped preliminary discussions about how Israel could take part in the defense shield project.

So far Turkey appears to be the only NATO member to have indicated there is an inherent double standard in seeking Israel’s assistance to ward off a perceived threat from Iran. Unlike Iran (and most other nations), Israel has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, with the result that its nuclear weapons program has never been subject to international scrutiny. Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, is reported to have raised this anomaly with his NATO peers at a meeting in Tallinn, Estonia, last month, telling them that “no country should be exempted from joining this treaty.”

Meanwhile, Israel’s reputation for inventing some of the most technologically advanced weapons used in modern warfare is attracting an increasing level of attention from that other powerful club based in Brussels: the European Union.

Sources in the European Defense Agency (EDA) — a body set up following lobbying by leading arms manufacturers and dedicated to boosting military expenditure by EU governments — have told this writer they are particularly excited by Israel’s pilotless drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Many officials in the EDA regard the agency’s work on drones as its most important activity. In July, the EDA will participate in a major conference here aimed at convincing the public that these sophisticated spy-planes can help achieve such laudable objectives as protecting the environment.

This exercise bears all the hallmarks of what ecologists call “greenwash.” Far from being invented to save the planet, drones have been used in numerous attacks by Israel on Palestinian civilians, as well as by NATO forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Britain and the Netherlands are among the countries taking part in the war in Afghanistan to have signed contracts to buy or rent Israeli drones in recent months.

A spokeswoman for the EDA explained that while her agency keeps a close eye on Israel’s arms industry, there are no plans for a formal cooperation agreement with Israel. The same cannot be said for the EU’s multi-annual scientific research program, which has a budget of 53 billion euros ($66.7 billion) for the 2007-13 period. Israel is the largest foreign partner in this program and the country’s arms-makers are intimately involved.

To prove that it was committed to former US President George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” the EU has decided in recent years to include security as a theme within the program. Nearly 60 projects have been financed under this category, with Israel taking part in 12 of them. Motorola Israel, for example, is signed up to a project designed to help the detection of “intruders” to buildings or areas deemed of high economic value. Motorola has ample experience in developing the kind of surveillance equipment that will probably feature in this project: it has installed a “virtual fence” around a network of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. This “fence” uses thermal cameras and other sensory devices to pinpoint anyone — such as a Palestinian — who the Israeli authorities believe should not be allowed to enter settlements built illegally on Palestinian land in open violation of international law.

In another example of greenwash, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) is playing a prominent role in the “Clean Sky” project, which is supposed to encourage the development of less-polluting aircraft engines. Far from being an eco-warrior, IAI is a top supplier of warplanes to the Israeli army.

Earlier this year, Irishwoman Maire Geoghegan-Quinn became the new European commissioner for science and research. When her spokesperson Mark English was asked if she has any ethical concerns about how EU-funded projects have been opened up to Israeli firms who have field tested their weapons against Palestinian civilians, rather than answering that question, he said that all of the EU’s research activities “maintain an exclusively civilian orientation.” He added: “our rules, however, do not preclude enterprises, which are also active in the defense industry — be they in the EU or in an associated country like Israel — from participating.”

It is deceptive for EU officials to claim that activities that involve arms companies are entirely civilian, especially when those companies hail from a highly militarized country like Israel and are directly implicated in the occupation and its attendant abuses of international law. As it happens, other officials have acknowledged that the EU institutions are preparing a blueprint for extending the scope of its scientific research programs into more hardcore military research.

Nobody should be surprised if Israel’s merchants of death and destruction will gobble up an even greater chunk of the EU’s research pie in the coming years. The only positive aspect of this ever-deepening relationship with Israel is that it helps shatter all illusions that the EU is serious when bragging routinely of its commitment to human rights.

David Cronin’s book Europe’s Alliance with Israel: Aiding the Occupation will be published later this year by Pluto Press.