ARLINGTON, Va. — NATO peacekeepers in Israel? It could happen, says the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s top military leader.

Top-level NATO leaders are mulling the possibility of an alliance peacekeeping mission between Israel and the Palestinians should a peace deal get brokered, according the Supreme Allied Commander Europe Marine Gen. James Jones.

“This is not a pie in the sky thing,” Jones told Stars and Stripes in an exclusive interview Wednesday. “There are people who feel that if we can get a peace accord that’s historical in nature, that you want to make sure that it works.”

The idea has been broached repeatedly at high-level alliance gatherings in recent months, Jones said.

“I’ve been very surprised at how much discussion there’s been informally. It’s been raised in at least three or four forums that I’ve been involved in,” said Jones, including meetings with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during recent visits to Europe.

Although Jones declined to say which member nations were pushing the idea, he said, “These are serious countries.”

Lesson learned

Jones says he’s learned to pay attention to early discussions like this.

He said that when he took over the helm of U.S. European Command and NATO two years ago, there was a lot of talk of a NATO mission into Afghanistan.

“I didn’t pay any attention to it,” said Jones. He simply didn’t think the proposals being floated would stand a chance at actual approval. Eight months later, the alliance began dispatching its first peacekeeping units to the war-wracked country.

And that’s certainly not the first stability mission NATO’s been involved in. Tens of thousands of U.S.-led NATO troops have patrolled the Balkans over the past 10 years in Bosnia (that operation formally ended in December) and the still-ongoing mission in Kosovo.

The U.S. has plenty of experience in Middle East peacekeeping as well with rotational battalions of light infantry keeping the peace between Israel and Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula since the 1979 Camp David Accord.

Jones said it’s too early to say which peacekeeping model — active “presence patrols” like in the Balkans or like the more static observation sites use in the Sinai — would be more appropriate in the Palestine territories.

“Let’s wait and see on this,” said Jones. “There’s a lot of work to be done. It will have its own character, and I’m not sure it will look like anything else, if we do it.”

But as with the missions in Bosnia and the Sinai, Jones said he didn’t think NATO troops would go into the Middle East until a solid peace deal has been hammered out.

“I can’t imagine anything happening before there’s a recognizable peace declaration.”

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