Brussels, Asharq Al-Awsat- NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has stressed that the North Atlantic alliance is seeking to improve its image in the Arab world and remove the misunderstanding that some Arab citizens have about it and its activities. He pointed out that cooperation with the Arab countries requires the removal of mutual misunderstanding since some citizens in the region have misconceptions about NATO in the same way that some of the alliance member states have erroneous ideas about the region.
Asharq al-Awsat spoke with Scheffer while on a break from a private meeting with a group of Arab correspondents visiting NATO”s Brussels headquarters, as part of the latter”s effort to improve its image in the Arab world through dialogue and meetings with correspondents and opinion makers and to clarify the alliance”s efforts to serve world peace. In reply to a question about NATO”s role in fighting terror, he said participation and cooperation in intelligence information between the NATO countries and countries outside it could greatly help hunt down the terrorists and foil their operations before they happen. He added that NATO”s resources and expertise are employed to serve the members and other countries outside it that are cooperating in the fight against terror. He pointed out that the Istanbul Initiative could play a decisive role in the cooperation against terror in addition to the role played by the cooperation between the "Mediterranean Dialogue" countries.
In a related context, the NATO secretary general stressed that the alliance is seeking to include all the Gulf Cooperation Council”s (GCC) countries in the Istanbul Initiative to cooperate with NATO. He noted that four countries have so far sent their agreement to join and these are Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. He said NATO is also hoping for the agreement with Saudi Arabia and Oman to join the initiative for the sake of achieving security and stability in the Middle East. He added that the initiative includes many programs for cooperation in the form of a list from which each country chooses what suits it according to its needs for training or attending courses and discussions in addition to participating in the intelligence information for fighting terror and facing the common challenges facing both the NATO and Arab countries.
Scheffer went on to say that, he would visit the GCC countries very soon to follow up the issue of cooperation within the Istanbul Initiative”s framework and would also visit Egypt in October within the context of the talks by member states of the "Mediterranean Dialogue." He said his visit to Egypt would be politically important and he is pinning much hopes on it, adding that NATO wishes to know Egypt”s vision of the means of cooperation in fighting terror. He pointed out that terror is a source of concern for the Arab world”s countries as much as it is for NATO and all must cooperate in fighting it. After referring to what happened in Sharm al-Sheikh, London, Bali, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, he said terror does not differentiate between people and targets all and everyone has to cooperate to confront the danger posed by the terrorists with all available means.
Scheffer disclosed on the other hand that NATO has started official contacts with the Palestinian Authority (PA) to explore the means of cooperation between the two sides for achieving common aims. He stressed at the same time that NATO does not wish to play any role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. He explained that the contacts with the PA began at an unofficial meeting between him and prominent PA leaders, Muhammad Dahlan and Saib Urayqat, on the sidelines of the Madrid antiterrorism conference. He said the two PA officials asked him a sudden question in which they said: "We have seen you visiting countries in the region and also Israel to hold talks with them. What about us? Do you not wish to come to the Palestinian territories?" Sheffer added, "In reply, I told them this is a reasonable question. I raised the issue with the NATO council when I returned to Brussels and told it I met the two men and had a short conversation with them during which they asked me a question that deserves an answer. I then sent the senior official in my office to Ramallah and he held preliminary talks with the PA officials and returned with a report on this visit. NATO decided to study this matter at the end of summer. We have reached that point but I do not know what the political results of these contacts will be. The good thing is that we have an effective channel for contacting the PA." He stressed that NATO does not wish to play any role in the Arab-Israeli conflict because it is not in the habit of doing what other parties do in order to prevent a repetition of efforts or duality in action.
On his part, Alessandro Minuto Rizzo, NATO”s deputy secretary general, told "Asharq al-Awsat" that the public diplomacy department at the alliance”s headquarters in Brussels recently appointed two Arabic language speakers to facilitate the understanding and contacts with the Arab world. He said NATO has been since its establishment in 1949 a purely defensive alliance to protect its members from the Soviet danger that existed in the past. Coincidentally, the alliance has not taken part since in its establishment in any field activities other than the protection of Muslims in Muslim countries or Muslim minorities in Europe. He cited several examples of NATO”s activities in Afghanistan, which is a Muslim country, the help given recently to Iraq — a Muslim country — to train senior Iraqi officers, NATO”s role in Darfur where the majority of the population is Muslim, and its role in confronting the ethnic conflicts in Europe like those in Bosnia and then Kosovo and Macedonia. These activities provided the Muslim minorities with protection from ethnic cleansing that targeted and killed large numbers of them.
Minuto Rizzo added that the alliance was not designed in the first place for protecting Muslims but its roles confirm that it does not consider Muslims the enemy replacing the Soviet Union, as some are claiming. He said the challenges are many and the Muslim world”s countries share them with the NATO ones and terror is targeting all in addition to the other challenges that require cooperation and understanding.