For Israel, joining NATO is wishful thinking: the alliance has no reason to accept the burden of protecting the Jewish state, which is threatened or at least disliked by every Arab country. Joining NATO while Israel still remains at war with Syria is legally problematic, as it may draw the alliance into a major war over what is to all international purposes a minor dispute. The absence of internationally recognized borders accepted by her neighbors is another legal obstacle to Israel joining NATO.
In any conflict, Israel would be the guilty side by NATO standards. She preempted in 1967—that is, she started a war. In 1973, Israel suffered the Egyptian attack only because she illegally held the Egyptian Sinai. In 1982, Israel’s right to invade a sovereign country over the criminal acts which originated from its territory was highly problematic (though the United States did just that with Mexico in 1845). The rocket attacks on Sderot are, under international law, a legitimate resistance against Israel’s illegal closure of the border crossings. Israel’s war with Syria would be over her illegal annexation of the Golan Heights. Israel’s attack on Iran, if it happens, would be a brazen violation of the UN charter because Iran, an NPT signatory, is entitled to its nuclear program.
Let’s test the 1967 situation. Egypt moves its army into Sinai but doesn’t cross Israel’s border. Syria mobilizes on the border region but still doesn’t invade Israel. There is nothing that NATO could do at this point. But after the attack it might be too late to call for NATO’s help, as Israel lacks depth of defense. By the time NATO’s help arrived, there might be no recipient.
Israel faces specific threats which won’t trigger NATO’s support. Acts of terrorism, however big, are not those of war. Even shelling of Israel by the duly elected government of Gaza still falls short of the stringent definition of casus belli. Europeans would always find an excuse for the Arab freedom fighters to prove that they only react to Israel’s violations of peace, such as the closure of border crossings.
NATO can stifle whatever help is forthcoming to Israel from the United States. America, a NATO member, probably is not entitled to aid Israel despite NATO’s official policy in any given situation. Moreover, once NATO assumes nominal responsibility for Israel’s survival, America can abandon its assumed responsibility.
In any pre-war crisis, NATO would press Israel rather than the Arabs. First, NATO will push Israel to abstain from preemption, because a NATO member is not supposed to start a war. Second, NATO has a huge interest in avoiding war with Arabs; since Arabs are inflexible, NATO would press Israel to accept the Arabs’ terms. Such appeasement is an inherent policy of mutual defense alliances: in the end, no one wants to defend anyone and only enters the alliance in order to receive protection. Thus, Britain and France in WWII not only accepted the German ultimatum but threatened Czechoslovakia that they would join the war against it on the German side—to make the Czechs accept German terms.
NATO’s credibility as a guarantor cannot be better than the Americans’ credibility, which is very low. After the war of 1956, Eisenhower enticed Israel to withdraw from the Sinai by promising American involvement if Egypt ever closed the Tiran Straits. When Egypt did just that ten years later, the United States did not mount military pressure on Egypt, but on the contrary had operational plans to land American troops in the Sinai on Egypt’s side—against Israel.
NATO is already inoperative. It failed to act coherently in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. It admitted many countries with diverse interests, some close to Arabs, others afraid of pro-Arab Russia.
Bringing the Israeli army up to NATO standards would be expensive and unnecessary, as the IDF’s own regulations are often better.