NATO’s recent invitation to the Israel Defense Forces to take part for the first time in multinational military exercises and participate in anti-terror activities has prompted Israel’s most prestigious foreign affairs conference to explore ways the Jewish state can become an enhanced NATO member and forge stronger ties to Europe.

The four day Herzliya Conference, which begins Dec. 13 and is known to set the tone for future regional policies, will present ways Israel will participate in a new NATO alliance, including formalizing its membership status, Uzi Arad, former director of Mossad’s intelligence division and chairman of the conference, told WorldNetDaily.

“Israel will be offering its model for an enhanced strategic relationship with NATO. The conference will include a group to discuss enhancement, including elevating Israel’s status from a dialogue member to a custom made format tailored to Israel’s standards and positions,” said Arad.

Arad said Israel’s formidable military force and its “good standing in our Western alliance should allow Israel greater participation in NATO. There are major commonalties of interest – defeating radical Islam and terrorism, democratization for the Middle East, and blunting nuclear proliferation, to name a few.”

Israel last month joined a NATO military summit in Brussels with the participation of the chiefs of staff of 26 NATO members and countries that have ties with the organization. Israel was also invited to take part in certain NATO military exercises and participate in anti-terror activities such as patrols in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

NATO plans to upgrade what it calls the “Mediterranean dialogue” it is conducting with Israel and six Muslim nations: Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauretania. This includes policy discussions conducted by leaders of a higher rank, and joint military operations through coordinated military exercises on the war on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and joint planning for civilian disaster readiness.

There have also been talks NATO may send forces to the Gaza Strip after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan is implemented next year if Israel and the Palestinian Authority ask for NATO’s help.

Some in Israel have said a NATO presence in Gaza could hurt Israel by internationalizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and hampering Israel’s ability to conduct anti-terror operations in Gaza if they become necessary.

Arad said “NATO in Gaza could be a fault, but in the long term, when there is a need for force, NATO is preferable over the U.N. because NATO has the U.S. in it.”

The conference is also set to discuss Israel’s growing relationship with the European Union. Arad said although certain members of the EU, including France and Germany, have taken a consistently pro-Palestinian line, Israel still stands to gain much with an increased EU alliance.

“Yes, it is true there are many manifestations of anti-Semitism in Europe, and we have disagreements, but so do European countries disagree amongst themselves,” said Arad. “Ultimately, Israel and the EU share basic cultural and value systems. We have the same enemies, same concerns.”

“Many people don’t realize Israel has quite an advanced working relationship with the EU, particularly in trade. Volumes of Israeli trade with Europe are greater than the entire Arab trade with Europe. And Europe is the beneficiary — it exports much more to Israel than it receives.”

The conference, in its fifth year, has been the site of several major policy speeches by Israeli leaders. Sharon last year announced at the conference his disengagement plan, and in 2002 detailed the U.S.-backed roadmap to peace. Arad said to expect similarly important diplomatic announcements this year, as well.

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