Tuesday morning I had a post concerning difficulties the State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland had in responding to an objection by Turkey to Israel’s attendance at an upcoming NATO summit. In short, she refused to say whether the U.S. would defend Israel’s participation.
Nuland contacted me late Tuesday afternoon to offer an explanation for her bobbing and weaving with the press. She told me, “Had it come up at the briefing again today, I would have clarified that it was never in the plan to invite Israel to the NATO summit, nor have they attended any previous NATO summits. The only NATO partner format that Israel is a member of is the Mediterranean Dialog, which has never met at summit level, and won’t this time either.” So what was Turkey objecting to?
If you accept the State Department’s version, Turkey was simply mouthing off, adding more fuel to the cross-fire between the countries. An Israeli news report stated: “A NATO spokeswoman said there had not been a discussion on inviting Israel to the Chicago summit.” The Times of Israel also reported:
“It is true that Israel wasn’t invited, because Ankara is working hard to prevent NATO from strengthening two partnerships: its Mediterranean partnership because of Israel, and its European Union partnership because of Cyprus,” an Israeli diplomatic official said. He added that Turkey was subject to “scathing criticism” from fellow member states for obstructing the development of NATO’s ties.
“We didn’t plan on attending the summit anyway,” the official said, adding that the list of invitees to NATO summits was a matter to be discussed between the alliance and its member states and that Israel was not going to get involved.
If this is all accurate, Nuland was tap dancing on behalf of NATO to fend off questions about which countries were being invited and which were not (something still not determined), and perhaps to avoid publicly embarrassing the Turks. The result, however, was a failure to rhetorically come to Israel’s defense or to buck NATO’s misbegotten PR stance, until the public push back made this untenable.
But there is something more fundamental at issue. Israel wasn’t being invited because the Turks previously rejected a so-called “individual partner plan” outlining Israel’s participation in the Med Dialogue. Because NATO operates on consensus, Israel is being blocked from engaging with NATO, at least at high level. That is why Israel wasn’t invited. A report from the Atlantic Council makes clear: “Turkey said it will not allow Israel, a member of the Mediterranean Dialogue, a NATO outreach program with seven non-NATO nations, to take part in the alliance’s new ‘Partnership Cooperation Menu (PCM),’ during a NATO meeting in Brussels last week attended by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. Because of Ankara’s veto, Israel will not attend the NATO summit due to take place from May 20 to 21 in Chicago, an important diplomatic summit to be hosted by US President Barack Obama.” In other words, failure to invite Israel is the result of Turkey’s actions and our inability to convince Turkey to cease and desist from its Israel boycott.
A pro-Israel activist told me late Tuesday that it was a positive sign that the State Department was seeking to contain the situation. However, the activist bluntly told me that “none of this excuses” why the State Department couldn’t make it clear that U.S. policy is to allow Israel to participate wherever appropriate or wherever their concerns may be affected. (We are, right?)
A foreign policy guru who has been critical of the administration had a similar take. The guru e-mailed that, in a way, the State Department explanation is “irrelevant” because “we should be able to invite whoever the hell we please without one of our partner nations telling them they can’t come.”
The administration’s defenders will say the State Department was trying to be a good NATO sport and can’t unblock the Turks because NATO operates on consensus. Its critics will say the administration once again put Israel too far down on its list of priorities and that the position on Israel’s participation as a NATO partner should be made clear to the Turks and everyone else. My own take is that the State Department spokeswoman really isn’t the problem here; rather, it is the administration for which she works that seems to value multi-lateralism and calming problem children (in this case, the Turks) more than the robust defense of bilateral friendships.