Since the early 1990s, NATO and the European Union have expanded across the eastern half of the continent, nearly doubling their size and membership to help consolidate democracy and security across the new Europe. Today, they have stretched their borders to the northern edge of the wider Middle East and are assuming new responsibilities across this wider security space.
But as important as the residual challenges of securing peace in Europe are, the deadly threat to Western societies posed by fundamentalist ideologies, terrorism and the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction is pulling the Euro-Atlantic community into the Middle East. Under American prodding, the West is debating whether and how to pursue a long-term strategy aimed at the transformation and democratization of the
region as a whole, and the American-European agenda is increasingly dominated by how to cooperate on questions ranging from Iran to Israeli-Palestinian peace. The old compartmentalization between a European and Middle Eastern security space is crumbling, and in this context, the question of whether and how Israel relates to and is included in broader Western strategy has inevitably arisen.
A confluence of geopolitical events over the last decade has offered the United States, Europe and Israel an unprecedented opportunity to reshape their own relations. It is in this environment that some Israeli strategic thinkers are starting to discuss an upgraded strategic relationship between Israel and Euro-Atlantic institutions — including, perhaps, Israel’s eventual membership in NATO and the E.U.
What seems remarkable to us is that Israelis have not been more curious and assertive in exploring such opportunities for enhancing Israel’s security and long-term viability. At a minimum, both Israel and the West will need to review what kind of relationship makes sense as the European and Middle Eastern security spaces increasingly overlap. We believe Israel may have a unique window in which it can seek to realign itself vis-à-vis Euro-Atlantic institutions, and we turn now to a sketch of the reasons that such a realignment is in the interests of Israel, the United States and Europe.
What’s in it for Israel?
The proper place to start such an analysis is Israel. After all, if Israelis are not interested in seeking an upgraded relationship with the Euro-Atlantic community, then there is little point in this exercise. Why might Israel be interested in such a step? It is, of course, up to the Israelis themselves to determine their national interest. Yet an outsider might offer the following thoughts for consideration.
First, at a minimum, Israel should want to have closer ties with NATO and the E.U. simply because they are actors who are coming closer to Israel geographically and who are developing strategies to shape the Middle Eastern neighborhood in which Israel lives. Israel should aspire to have the closest possible relations with the actors and institutions setting those policies.
Second, a new and upgraded relationship between Israel and the Euro-Atlantic community could become a critical element in helping to provide the security Israel will need in order to take steps to make peace with a Palestinian state. Anchoring Israel more closely with NATO and the E.U. can reduce the sense of isolation that Israel feels. In a post-Oslo political environment, such a step could be especially important in convincing a skeptical Israeli public to support such a settlement.
Third, an upgrading of Israel’s relations with the institutions of the Euro-Atlantic community could play an important role in ending Israel’s political and diplomatic isolation and strengthen Israel’s position vis-à-vis other parts of the world, including its adversaries in the Middle East.
Last but perhaps most important, the American connection is a necessary but not necessarily sufficient condition for Israel’s long-term survival and viability. The United States is and will remain the key Western anchor for Israel, but it is also clear that the country would benefit from a second European or Euro-Atlantic anchor. This is especially true if one views Israel’s needs in a broader strategic sense extending beyond military security and including economic markets, access to technology and currency stability. Developing closer relations with the Euro-Atlantic community can also serve as an insurance policy in case Israel is ever faced with a rapidly deteriorating security situation in the region. In such a scenario, Israel might feel the need to seek closer strategic relations with the West. It would make sense to lay the foundation for such an option in advance of such a crisis.
This list of potential benefits, of course, is matched by what some Israelis could view as the possible costs of such a move. One set of concerns centers on Israel’s deeply rooted belief in the need for political and strategic self-reliance and its reluctance to rely on allies. Related to this is Israel’s own negative history with and distrust of multilateral institutions, especially the United Nations. Israel will think hard about whether closer relations with NATO and the E.U. could constrain its freedom of maneuver on core issues central to its security.
A second set of concerns has to do with Israel’s own identity and its relationship with Europe. Do Israelis today see themselves as a democratic Jewish state whose values are fundamentally the same as those of the Euro-Atlantic community? Or do they view themselves as a people essentially betrayed by Europe? If the answer is the former, then there is no reason that Israel should not seek a close relationship with and perhaps even inclusion in those institutions created to defend and sustain those values. If the answer is the latter, however, it is hard to see why Israelis would see a strategy of returning Israel to European institutions as desirable.
A third and final set of doubts has to do with the viability and cohesion of the Euro-Atlantic community itself. After all, why should Israel make a major move to get close to the Euro-Atlantic community if that community itself is in danger of falling apart? Are Americans and Europeans capable of overcoming the divisions of recent years ,and will they undertake this kind of strategy? Even if the Euro-Atlantic community regains its footing and comes together again, many Israelis would ask whether such an upgrade in Israel’s relations with the West is really on offer.
Many of these concerns are real and need to be discussed and addressed at length. Even this brief survey suggests that there is a compelling case for Israelis to explore the option of such an upgrade and its potential benefits and downsides. But such a cost-benefit analysis also requires us to look at American and European interests and views.
What’s in it for America?
As the main supporter of Israel, the United States shares many of the aforementioned interests and benefits. This is a case where the interests of both sides potentially dovetail, as Washington clearly would benefit from a strategy that would make Israel more secure and that would enhance its long-term viability as a country and nation. In addition, several other considerations should be taken into account:
First, the United States would acquire partners and assistance in sharing the burden of helping to secure Israel and anchor her to the West. To be sure, Europe would also gain more potential influence by assuming more burden and responsibility. But it is unlikely to displace the United States as the senior partner and friend of Israel in any meaningful way, barring some radical crisis in American-Israeli relations. Americans can afford to be relaxed. There is no danger of American influence with Israel being marginalized.
Second, the transatlantic rift over how to deal with Israel would presumably be narrowed significantly if not overcome, thus eliminating one of the current sources of tension in American-European relations. One way to help narrow the gap between the United States and Europe is to force both sides to work together in developing a more common approach. It is noteworthy how deep differences often suddenly narrow when one has to share responsibility and contemplate joint action.
Third, a common Euro-Atlantic policy toward Israel would also mean that the Arab world would be less able to play on differences between the United States and Europe. Over time, this could increase the American negotiating leverage and position in the Arab world.
Of course, there will be Euro-skeptical voices in the United States who will question such an approach. They will argue that ensuring Israel’s security through a bilateral relationship with the United States is easier, more flexible and perhaps even advantageous. They would claim that the United States would be making a mistake by “allowing” Europeans to acquire a more important voice and greater influence in Israel and in the Middle East.
Yet how can we assert that Israel is part of the West but also insist that developing Israel’s ties with the core institutions of the West is somehow too hard or complicated? At the end of the day, if Israel makes it clear that it desires a closer relationship with Europe, then such voices are likely to be muted and limited in their impact.
A good deal of political legwork would undoubtedly be required to make this official American policy. But the United States would arguably have the fewest problems adopting such a strategy. It will not be the obstacle if Israel wants to move forward.
What’s in it for Europe?
The real question lies in Europe. In many ways, this is the key issue — not only because Europeans run the E.U. and have a decisive voice in NATO, but also because Europeans have a more troubled relationship with Israel. Yet here, too, there are arguably several ways in which Europe could benefit from such an upgrade.
First, if such an upgrade were part and parcel of a move toward peace in the Middle East, the E.U. would move from the sidelines to center stage in the peace process and in Middle Eastern politics more generally. If Europeans truly believe that achieving Middle East peace is critical, this is one way in which they can contribute to this goal. It could acquire the kind of major role to which many European leaders have long aspired — and give an enormous boost to European diplomatic credibility and standing in the region and beyond.
Second, Europe’s own strained relationship with Israel could be mended. The current situation, in which the E.U. has extremely close economic and other ties with Israel but almost no meaningful political or strategic dialogue, could be overcome. A Europe that is more engaged on the ground is also likely to be a more responsible one, including in Israeli eyes.
Third, while some in Europe may fear that such a move would mean abandoning Europe’s policy of being “even-handed” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and undercutting Europe’s standing in the Arab world, it need not be the case. If handled correctly, such a step might actually lead pro-Western moderate Arab states to also seek closer ties with the Euro-Atlantic community, something we should welcome.
There are three big questions about the feasibility of Europeans making such a leap of strategic imagination to embrace such a bold strategy. The first is whether European leaders have the vision and courage to take such a step, and whether it is domestically sustainable given the kind of critical sentiments toward Israel that one finds today in many parts of Europe.
Many European colleagues argue that Israel and Palestine must first make peace, and then and only then should discussions about bringing Israel closer to and perhaps into Euro-Atlantic institutions begin. We would suggest that only when Europeans move beyond this static and reactive approach will Europe acquire the sort of role and influence it wants in Middle Eastern affairs.
The second and perhaps equally important question for many Europeans will be whether Europe can find a way to upgrade its relations with Israel yet sustain what it views as its special commitment to the Palestinians and to key Arab states. If handled properly, one could argue that such a move would enhance Europe’s prestige and influence in the Arab world. But this underscores that European countries will be more comfortable in upgrading Israel’s relations with Europe if that step can be embedded in a broader regional approach that also contains opportunities to step up outreach to key Arab states. This is a question of packaging.
Finally, there is the question of whether the E.U. will be willing to assume the kind of added responsibility such a strategic shift would entail — and whether it would be willing to do so in partnership with the United States. Many Europeans could be concerned that they are being drawn into potential conflicts and assuming new risk in the region.
Yet at the end of the day, it may be far easier for Europe to mend its relations with Israel in a trans-Atlantic framework. Many Europeans are aware that the problematic relationship between Israel and Europe also creates a long-term strain on American-European relations, which manifests itself in doubt about the reliability of the American-European partnership in the Middle East. Establishing a better Israeli-European relationship would serve not only to enhance Israel’s security, but also to mitigate those doubts.
Where to start?
We are living in a moment of strategic fluidity, both across the Atlantic and in the Middle East. The future contours of the Euro-Atlantic community are likely to settle in the years ahead. The question is whether they will come to an end on the northern edge of the wider Middle East and stop with Turkey and the Black Sea region, or whether they will reach down to embrace a democratic country like Israel.
We believe there is a compelling strategic argument for why Israel should explore the option of building closer ties to the Euro-Atlantic community. The scope of what is imaginable or possible is wide.
Israel can start by turning to those NATO nations that it considers to be friendly and that are likely to be most interested in developing relations. The friendly NATO nations, in turn, can take the lead in creating opportunities for Israel to deepen its relationship through the plethora of existing partnership mechanisms, or by working with Israel in a subgroup of NATO allies.
Over time, Israel might aspire to develop the kind of close partnership relationship that countries such as Sweden and Finland have developed over the past decade and enjoy today: a very close political relationship, close military interoperability and the de facto yet unspoken option to join NATO if the strategic environment ever makes such a move necessary.
A longer version of this article appears in the February/March issue of Policy Review.