What happens when the world’s most powerful military alliance meets the world’s most militarised state? Well, for a start they find they have a lot in common. NATO is the ‘defensive’ alliance which over 2 decades has waged war on 3 continents – none of it in response to any threat to its member states. And Israel – continuously at war with its neighbours since 1948 – has acquired unsurpassed expertise in the darks arts of ‘counterterrorism’. You bet they have a lot to learn from each other and are keen to give mutual support.
Israel connects with NATO in 2 ways. It is a member of the Mediterranean Dialogue, one of several partnership organisations which extend NATO’s web beyond the continent of Europe – in this case across the Mediterranean Sea to the countries of North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Israel are all partners. But perhaps more importantly, since 2008 NATO connects with Israel via an Individual Cooperation Programme (ICP) which elevates Israel to the status of a Major Non-Nato Ally involving close strategic cooperation with the alliance.
It’s easy to see what they have in common. Involvement with NATO brings a veneer of respectability to a country widely seen as a pariah state. Israel is keen to draw NATO into direct conflict with its neighbours – especially Syria and Iran. NATO has held joint naval exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean with Israel and since 9/11 has established a permanent naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean off the coasts of Lebanon and Syria. This directly benefits Israel and poses a new threat to the Levant. And NATO has used its relationship with Israel and Egypt to extend its naval power down the Suez Canal, through the Red Sea and into the Indian Ocean.
Israel, as we have noted, is a highly militarised society. Young men are conscripted into the IDF for 3 years and women for 2 years. It has very high levels of military spending – in 2012 totalling 6.3% of GDP (around 3 times that of the UK). Only Saudi Arabia and Oman spend more.
Israel’s battle hardened forces use state of the art equipment, mostly supplied from the United States and some from the UK. But much Israeli equipment is now produced locally. Israel has a growing arms manufacturing industry which produces battle tanks, fighter aircraft, small arms (assault rifles, Uzi submachine guns), armoured bulldozers, rockets, observation balloons, surveillance systems and, increasingly, unmanned aerial vehicles or drones. It has three large publicly owned arms manufacturers – IMI (Israel military industries), IAI (Israeli Aerospace Industries), and Rafael as well as several private companies including Elbit Systems and many smaller firms. Indeed, Israel is now a major arms exporter. It is the world’s largest exporter of drones. In 2013 Israel had overseas arms sales of $7.5bn – making it the world’s 4th biggest arms exporter (ahead of UK and Germany). What helps to sell Israeli arms is that these weapons are tried and tested in battle. The occupied territories become a crucial laboratory for testing new and existing weapons and 4 million Palestinians become guinea pigs in a grotesque and never-ending series of military experiments.
Moreover, arms sales are an increasingly important part of Israel’s economy accounting for 10-20% of exports. Small wonder that Israel’s political leaders are not interested in negotiation. They have a vested interest in not negotiating peace, not stopping settlement building and not ending the occupation. The economy increasingly depends on it.
And small wonder that NATO countries want to get hold of that expertise gained through almost 50 years of occupation and become reluctant to put pressure on Israeli leaders to reach a political settlement. They also want to use Israel’s expertise in repression and occupation for their own wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.
And its not just NATO that has growing links with Israel. The European Union is helping to fund Israel’s arms industry. Out of an EU scientific research budget of €53bn between 2007 and 2013, €12bn went to Israeli arms manufacturing companies, almost a quarter of the total. This includes direct funding of Israeli drone development through research grants to Elbit systems and Israel Aerospace Industries.
In short, Israel has become a de facto member of the Western military alliance in everything but name. It shares crucial intelligence and expertise in surveillance, targeted assassination, covert operations, missile defence and drones.
Both Israel and NATO are ultimately manipulated by the United States to serve its wider global strategy. NATO’s expansion since the end of the Cold War is about binding other countries into support for US policy and driving US influence deeper into Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Israel’s role, alongside that of US client states and US military intervention in the region, is to destabilise the Middle East and help tip the balance of power in favour of the United States.
That’s why the global peace and solidarity movements are so important. 18 months ago we stopped US-led armed intervention against Syria. We can win victories. If we work together we can stop the arms trade with Israel, break the links with NATO and build a powerful global alliance in support of the Palestinian people.