Turkey, NATO’s only Muslim member and a country whose government is openly hostile towards Israel, has vetoed Israel’s participation in other NATO activities, but both NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Obama administration officials insist that Israel was not blocked from the May 20-21 summit.
There had never been any intention to invite Israel in the first place, they say.
Rasmussen at a press conference in Brussels late last week attributed Israel’s absence to the fact that it has not taken part in NATO military operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo.
“Israel has not been invited to attend the summit because Israel is neither a participant in ISAF, nor in KFOR,” he said, using the acronyms for the International Security Assistance Force and the Kosovo Force. “So for the very same reason I can also clearly state that no-one has blocked an invitation because it’s not been an issue.”
Israeli troops would not be welcome in either ISAF or KFOR since both are in Muslim-majority territories and both forces have Muslim countries among the contributors.
Still, Israel is a member of one of NATO’s main “partnership” initiatives, the Mediterranean Dialogue, whose other members are Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia.
“Partnerships” with non-members is one of three key themes for Chicago event, and in his annual report delivered in January, Rasmussen highlighted the importance in the months ahead of seeking “a stronger relationship with the broader Middle East and North Africa region, principally by strengthening the Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. Allies will work closely with partners from the region to see how they can work better together to address common security challenges.”
(The Istanbul Cooperation Initiative is another NATO partnership, involving Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.)
Non-member countries that have been invited to the summit include Qatar, the UAE, Jordan and Morocco. Rasmussen said they would participate “because they have contributed in a significant way to our operations.”
Qatar and the UAE took part in NATO’s mission in Libya last year, while UAE and Morocco have also been involved in KFOR and Jordan and the UAE have had roles in ISAF.
Rasmussen said the Chicago would be “the biggest summit in NATO history,” and confirmed that the European Union and United Nations were among those invited. Other non-members on the invitation list include Russia (represented by a diplomat, not President Vladimir Putin), Japan, South Korea, Afghanistan, Australia and New Zealand, as well as aspiring NATO members Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Georgia.
Under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning government, Turkey’s relationship with one-time ally Israel has soured significantly, and Ankara has vaunted the steps it has taken in recent years to block Israel’s cooperation with NATO.
As the alliance operates on the basis of consensus, members have the ability to block decisions even though outside disputes are not supposed to impact on NATO activities.
Turkey this year objected to Israel’s participation in a naval operation patrolling the Mediterranean, and last year threatened to use its veto if necessary to stymie an attempt by Israel by open a liaison office at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Last month, Turkish officials told local media that Ankara has informed fellow NATO members that it will not endorse Israeli participation in alliance events, including the Chicago summit. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was cited as having made this stance clear during meetings in Brussels on April 18 attended by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The State Department at the time appeared reluctant to comment, even declining to say whether the U.S. – the host nation – would like Israel to take part in the summit.
Turkey’s Today’s Zaman daily late last week quoted a “senior Turkish diplomatic source” as saying that had Israel been invited to Chicago, Turkey would not have hesitated to veto its participation.
In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Phillip Gordon noted the summit’s focus on partnerships, and said “we envision a particular focus on further engagement with partners in the wider Middle East and North Africa region.”
Asked by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) about the Israel issue, Gordon addressed what he said had been a “misconception,” saying there had been no invitation to Israel in the first place for Turkey to block.
Gordon acknowledged concerns about the Turkish-Israeli tensions.
“We regret that partnership activities at NATO with Israel are not proceeding because of Turkish objections,” he said. “And we’ve been very clear about that, that no country should bring bilateral disputes into the alliance. We don’t accept that countries can pick and choose in blocking partnership activities.”
Last week the House of Representatives passed by an overwhelming margin a bipartisan bill aimed at strengthening the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. A “sense of Congress” portion of the legislation called for an “expanded role” in NATO for Israel, “including an enhanced presence at NATO headquarters and exercises.”