How NATO Can Help Speed Arab-Israeli Peace

Israelis have traditionally scorned the idea of international peacekeepers in their region. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion once dismissed the U.N.—"Oom" in Hebrew—as "Oom, shmoom." Arab leaders have also shown disdain: on the eve of the 1967 Six Day War, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser peremptorily expelled 1,300 blue helmets from Sinai before rolling through. Palestinians have feared that an armed international force would infringe on the sovereignty of their incipient state.

So it's striking that a recent proposal to deploy NATO forces in the West Bank as part of any Obama-era peace deal is quickly gaining advocates in Washington and the Levant. Former U.S. national-security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski both recently endorsed the idea. The president-elect's nominee to head the National Security Council, Gen. James Jones, is also said to favor such a force. Israelis and Palestinians have raised tepid protests, but even they seem to be realizing increasingly that a strong international presence will be critical if any deal is to be struck—and if it's to stick. "A principle that appeared to be out of bounds I think is now in bounds," says Tony Blair, the Mideast envoy of the Quartet (made up of the United States, the EU, the United Nations and Russia).

Negotiators have long struggled with a frustrating Catch-22. Israelis argue that they can't make a deal until Palestinian troops become competent enough to control militants. Palestinians complain that they can't do so until the Israelis withdraw. A robust international force could solve that conundrum, reassuring Israelis on security while freeing the Palestinians from their hated occupiers.

The idea has been floated before. The deal that President Bill Clinton proposed at Camp David in 2000 called for "an international presence." But Aaron David Miller, a U.S. negotiator at the talks, says Israelis insisted that the troops be American. Clinton's plan also would have allowed Israeli forces to remain in the Jordan Valley for up to three years "under the authority of the international force." The NATO mission being proposed today would have a wider mandate and might even preclude Israeli troops in areas it would patrol. "People are increasingly going for the maximalist version," says Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation.

What changed? Since the recent Lebanon war, Israel has begun to recognize it doesn't have the means to deal with its enemies, which are largely guerrilla armies, says Yossi Alpher, a former Mossad official. So Israel is "increasingly willing to rely on the international community," he says. Palestinians, too, have begun to come around—if only because nothing else has secured them statehood. They now realize, Brzezinski argues, that the alternative to an international force is more Israeli occupation.

Of course, there are still plenty of obstacles. Peacekeepers currently stationed in the Golan Heights and Sinai have been successful, but they patrol largely empty demilitarized zones. Operating in the cramped and densely populated hills around Jerusalem would be infinitely more difficult. And with Hamas in control of Gaza, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hopelessly weak and Israel's hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu poised for a comeback, perhaps the biggest challenge will be getting any peace deal at all. Alpher says that NATO peacekeepers would be little more than "icing on the cake" of a peace agreement. But he warns: "I don't know how anyone arrives at the assumption there's going to be a cake."

Even if there were, it's not guaranteed that NATO countries would comply. Americans and Europeans have grown more comfortable in recent years deploying forces to combat zones, and the benefits of a peace deal could be huge. But what would happen if rejectionist groups like Islamic Jihad started picking off peacekeepers? Would NATO respond with Israeli-style preventive raids? Scowcroft says he hopes not. But then it's not clear how NATO could prevent the Israelis from taking matters into their own hands. And should all-out fighting resume, NATO could be drawn into the middle. At the end of the 2006 Lebanon war, one senior Israeli security official, speaking anonymously, said that deploying NATO troops there would "put the whole conflict in a different context," drawing Americans and Europeans into "a clash of civilizations." The same would be true in the West Bank—a sobering thought that any Western politician would do well to consider.