In a significant upgrading of ties, NATO will recognize an official Israeli representative and the intergovernmental military alliance will grant Israel a permanent office at its headquarters in Brussels, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
“NATO informed Israel this evening that Israel will be able to open an office at the organization’s headquarters in Brussels and complete the process of accepting the credentials of its representative to NATO,” a Tuesday night statement read.
“The announcement comes after lengthy Israeli diplomatic efforts by the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry and the National Security Agency. Israel wishes to thank its allies in the organization for their support and efforts on the issue,” the Foreign Ministry added.
Israel is not a member of the 28-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization, known by its acronym NATO, but has enjoyed military cooperation with the body in a number of fields and is currently a partner of the Mediterranean Dialogue, a NATO outreach program with seven friendly nations bordering on the waterway.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also serves as Israel’s foreign minister, welcomed the announcement and said it helped quash ongoing criticism of Israel’s weak relations on the international stage.
“This is an important step that helps Israel’s security. It is further proof to the status of Israel and the willingness of many organizations to cooperate with us in the field of security,” he said.
Israel’s Ambassador to the European Union David Walzer also serves as representative to NATO, but up until now the Israeli mission has not been officially recognized by the organization.
Some NATO governments have opposed past attempts to forge closer cooperation with Israel, arguing that they could hurt the alliance’s relations with Muslim states, including Afghanistan, which remains one of NATO’s top operational priorities.
A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry was not immediately available to comment on whether Jerusalem is currently taking any concrete steps to apply for full NATO membership.
In his former position as deputy foreign minister, current Tourism Minister Ze’ev Elkin made improving ties with NATO a priority, stating publicly during a meeting with the organization’s Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow that Israel sought to have a permanent representative.
“In contrast to a decline in relations in recent years there has been a significant improvement in the last year,” Elkin said in January 2014. “We are interested in getting the situation back to the way it was and to even broaden the range of matters that NATO and Israel join forces on, including having an Israeli representative at NATO.”
Vershbow was visiting Israel at the time to discuss cooperation between NATO and Israel.
NATO currently has about 40 partner nations, including Australia, India, Japan, Pakistan and Russia. Its partnerships include ones with European non-NATO countries, the Mediterranean basin and Persian Gulf states.
NATO’s treaty requires the alliance to militarily defend members nations, of which there are 28, but not partner ones. Still, partner states regularly contribute to NATO operations such as those in Afghanistan and naval missions off Somalia and in the Mediterranean Sea.
The last expansion of the organization took place in December 2015 when NATO member states formally invited the tiny Adriatic nation of Montenegro to join the alliance in the face of Russian opposition.
The invitation set in motion the process to accept the first new member state since fellow Balkan countries Albania and Croatia were admitted in 2009.