The Case for Upgrading Israel’s “Major Non-NATO Ally” Status
If there are any lessons from the deadly days since the Hamas began its ambush of Israel on October 7 it is that Israel’s victory will come at a high price, and that Hamas and other terrorist organizations, including Iran’s other proxies, threaten not just the people of Israel but of all of humanity. Indeed, in the weeks since Hamas’s barbaric attack (which included the taking of European hostages) not only have allies demonstrated solidarity with Israel, but recently the President of France Emmanuel Macron announced his intention to form an international coalition to confront Hamas.
As the United States coordinates its response and support for Israel with its European allies, there is an opportunity to formalize Israel’s role as an enhanced major non-NATO ally and integrate it into NATO’s weapons development and acquisition coordination among member nations. This move can both expedite and streamline ongoing efforts between the United States and Israel to co-produce and co-fund joint military projects like the Arrow-3 recently sold to Germany and David’s Sling to be sold to Finland. It would likely also expand NATO support for Israel.
In September, Deputy Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Mircea Geoană paid Netanyahu a visit in Israel. Geoană, who chairs NATO’s Innovation Board, focused much of his trip on Israel’s tech sector, toured the Technion and the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation.
The visit appears to be part of a new form of engagement by NATO with Israel since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Whereas Israel, one of 18 countries with the designation of “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA), has always been a critical NATO partner in the stabilization of the Mediterranean region, today it appears integral to Europe’s defense needs.
The fact that ties between NATO and Israel have been deepening is reflected not only in NATO members’ recent purchases of Israel’s cutting edge military technology such as the Arrow-3 and David’s Sling, but also the nature of their meetings. Namely, since early 2022 NATO has been looking to Israel not only as a pillar of Mediterranean stability as it had been previously, but as a source of both critical battlefield experience and innovative military technology that is integral to NATO members’ defense in the face of mounting Russian aggression on its borders. On May 8, 2023, Israeli military officials briefed NATO on Israel’s Innovation Strategy, and Israel’s President Isaac Herzog visited NATO headquarters in January 2023 – the first time an Israeli president has addressed NATO allies there. In November of 2022, just after Netanyahu’s re-election, NATO Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Security Policy visited Israel with a focus on both technological innovation and developing a shared work plan. It is our view that this is certainly the opportune time for deepening ties, especially with Finland joining the alliance.
These events are not happenstance, but are part of a deliberate interest expressed consistently since 2022 by both NATO and Israel to deepen their ties on technology and innovation. With its support to Russia’s invasion, Iran has also become an area of common concern and both NATO’s Secretary General and the President highlighted it during Herzog’s visit.
The idea of Ukraine as a “major non-NATO ally” has resurfaced in policy discussions recently, and some have suggested giving Ukraine the status of an “enhanced major non-NATO ally, which would allow for specialized training and equipment based on their needs beyond that dictated by the “non-enhanced” status.
The idea of upgrading Israel’s MNNA status, however, has surprisingly not come up in recent discussions, nor has it changed since President Reagan gave Israel the designation in 1987.
Although over the last decade there were important efforts to raise Israel’s status and cooperation with the United States – notably the 2014 U.S.- Israel Strategic Partnership Act, and the 2020 U.S.-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act – particularly on research and military technology, none of these expressly identify changes in Israel’s relationship to NATO.
It is time to upgrade Israel’s MNNA status – with an eye towards greater “NATO-ization,” as Reagan’s Defense Department called it – especially if the United States and the alliance are to leverage the full scope of Israel’s innovative contributions to meet the complex range of threats in 2023.
Countries with the designation of MNNA – which include Pakistan, Thailand, Tunisia, and Jordan – have a defined set of privileges that include housing U.S. war stockpiles, receiving loans of military equipment, and receiving expedited transfers of equipment. They can even enter into memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with the Department of Defense “for the purpose of conducting cooperative research and development projects on defense equipment and munitions,” and MMNA companies can bid on contracts.
MNNA’s, even non-NATO members, can contribute to some NATO coordination. For example, NATO’s Regional Special Operations Component Command (R-SOCC), includes Austria, as a part of a “regional deployable headquarters.” But only NATO allies are listed as participants in NATO’s six “High-end acquisition” projects. NATO allies also have restrictions on joint educational exchanges for citizens of allied nations and intelligence sharing between governments. They are also not included in the robust transatlantic defense industrial base collaborations and summits.
As MNNA’s are defense consumers, interoperability and integration into NATO defense acquisition is understandably not a priority in the way that it is for full members of the alliance, for them to effectively respond together as an alliance. Israel, as a defense producer, already has a different relationship with NATO than, say, Colombia or Qatar, whom the Biden administration admitted in 2022. Not only has Israel pioneered defensive missile defense systems like the Iron Dome, but was also the first to deploy artificial intelligence (AI) on the battlefield during its 2021 conflict with Hamas. As part of its current Operation Swords of Iron, Israel is deploying drones with “AI identification and classification capability, able to detect life, armed adversaries, and weapons stations,” a capability integral to navigating the complex terrain of the Gaza Strip while demonstrating Israel’s rigorous adherence to the laws of armed conflict.
This is precisely the time to push for formalization and elevation of Israel’s relations with NATO. The alliance announced at its Vilnius Summit in July of 2023 its Defense Production Action Plan for coordinating defense production and standards with the EU defense industry. A month earlier, NATO launched the Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) pilot programs – a series of multiple sites across 23 NATO member states focusing on coordination with research institutes on various areas of emerging technology.
Israel is a natural force-multiplier for both these efforts and has demonstrated recent successes with a series of advanced weapons systems co-produced with the United States that NATO members purchased for their own defense needs. Indeed, for the United States, it would be relevant to not only incorporate its newly-announced Replicator initiative into these efforts but to make it clear Israel is a key partner, particularly in key areas like development of hypersonic weapons and in deeper collaboration across domains.
With adversaries not limiting themselves to one capability or to one theater, and with clear gaps in not only scaling defense production but also in leveraging the most sophisticated military technology, the United States and NATO cannot afford to have Israel remain an MNNA with privileges limited to defense consumption and restrictions on defense contributions. And with the threats from Iran and other adversaries escalating, the window for the President and Congress to act is closing quickly.
To quote Knesset Member Zvi Hauser’s remarks on the margins of a 2022 meeting with NATO, “We are already labeled the ‘startup nation.’ I’d like Israel to become the ‘impact nation.’ Our technologies are very relevant to the changing NATO.”
Peace in the world and deterrence of strategic adversaries – the very mission that informed NATO’s founding – depend on MK Hauser’s remarks becoming reality. Iran and its proxies have demonstrated their threat not only to Israel’s security, but to the United States and its allies around the world. Today, that peace will depend not only on the outcome of Israel’s war, but also how effectively it can coordinate with the U.S. and allies around the world in defeating common threats, particularly from Iran. Enhancing its MNNA status is therefore an important step.
Lt Gen. Thomas Trask (U.S. Air Force, ret.) served in Air Force special operations for 33 years and retired as the Vice Commander of US Special Operations Command. He is a defense and security expert and serves on the Board of Advisors for the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).
Jacob Olidort Ph.D. is Director of Research at the Gemunder Center for Defense & Strategy at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).
Originally Published in Real Clear Defense.