Every once in a while a debate breaks out in Pakistan over the issue of recognising Israel. After a few days of discussing the pros and cons of establishing diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, the issue recedes back into the woodwork, until the next time. For a couple of weeks now, the issue of Israel has once again become a matter of public debate. This latest episode started after the UAE and Bahrain decided to establish full diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv.
The speed at which Israel and UAE moved forward towards normalisation stunned everyone in Pakistan. Almost everyone in Pakistan is convinced that the Saudis tacitly endorsed the Abraham Accords that paved the way for UAE-Israel relations. Meanwhile, Pakistan's ‘selected’ Prime Minister Imran Khan told journalists that he was under tremendous pressure to recognise
s Israel. After reports emerged of a secret meeting between the Israeli Prime Minister and the Saudi Crown Prince, the debate in Pakistan over recognising Israel gained greater urgency, more so after journalists reputed to be mouthpieces of the military establishment started weighing in favour of relations with Israel.
The speed at which Israel and UAE moved forward towards normalisation stunned everyone in Pakistan. Almost everyone in Pakistan is convinced that the Saudis tacitly endorsed the Abraham Accords that paved the way for UAE-Israel relations
of Israel by the honorary majors and colonels of the Media Corps
of the Pakistan Army was seen as a trial balloon
being floated by the Pakistan Army to gauge public reaction before they took a decision. But the balloon soon got deflated because the naysayers in not just the media but also in politics, civil society, clergy and every other walk of life came out in opposition to any rapprochement with Israel. It wasn’t long before Imran Khan and later the Pakistan Foreign Office
declared that there was no question of recognising Israel until it agreed to a two state solution, restoration of the pre-1967 borders and Jerusalem became the capital of the Palestinian state. With rumours swirling around that the Army wasn’t on the same page as the ‘selected’ government, the army was forced to clarify
that it stood with the government on this issue.
For decades, and especially after India restored full diplomatic relations with Israel in the early 1990s, Pakistan has faced a dilemma on whether or not to follow suit. Although there have always been voices in Pakistan to recognise Israel, the dilemma was easily resolved in a world that was much less complicated than what it is today. With much of the Islamic world refusing to accept Israel, there was little incentive for Pakistan to go against the tide. Doing so would mean antagonising the Arab world which was Pakistan's economic lifeline. Pakistan of course maintained some back channel contacts with Israel. In his book, former foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri, has disclosed that Pakistani officials would often liaise with their Israeli counterparts to deliver messages, seek and give assurances, and even discuss security concerns involving the other country. But formal recognition, even if discussed, was never really on the table.
There was a bit of a flutter in 2005 when Kasuri’s meeting with his Israeli counterpart in Turkey was followed by an encounter between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Pakistani military dictator Pervez Musharraf at the UN. Even though billed as a ‘chance encounter’
– Sharon later said he never meets anyone by chance – it was clear that a back channels were active to get the two to meet and exchange pleasantries. But despite nice noises coming from Israel – the Israeli foreign minister even saying that Israel didn’t see Pakistan as an enemy
and faced no threat from Pakistan’s nuclear programme (The News International 19/9/2005) – the bilateral relations didn’t move forward.
Despite nice noises coming from Israel – the Israeli foreign minister even saying that Israel didn’t see Pakistan as an enemy and faced no threat from Pakistan’s nuclear programme (The News International 19/9/2005) – the bilateral relations didn’t move forward
Nearly a quarter century after the Israel-Palestine peace accord, the geo-politics of the middle-east started to once again take a major turn in the mid 2010’s. Among other things, ‘Arab Spring’, Iran’s aggressive adventurism and expanding footprint, the rising security challenges because of terrorism, and the seeming loss of US interest in the region prompted new alignments. Around that time, reports of informal contacts between Israelis and Arabs (in particular, Saudi Arabia) started doing the rounds. One such meeting
was facilitated by India. Statements from the Saudi Crown Prince on accepting Israel with caveats were also made. In 2018, a mysterious flight
of an Israeli business jet to Islamabad was reported. Although the Pakistani authorities flatly denied any such flight had occurred, the rumour mills continued to churn. After UAE and Bahrain recognised Israel, Sudan followed, and there were reports of other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, were getting ready to normalise diplomatic relations with Israel, Pakistan was in a quandary on whether to join the band-wagon or swim against the tide.
Reports started doing the rounds of increasing pressure on Pakistan from the Arab states. as well as US, to follow suit. The unprecedented Saudi decision to demand payback of loans it had extended to Pakistan, coupled with the refusal to extend the deferred oil facility was seen as being part of the pressure. The UAE also refused to roll-over its loans and further turned the screws by placing visa restrictions. The Pakistanis were convinced that there was full-on pressure from the Arabs on the issue of Israel. For the first time, Israel posed a real dilemma for the Pakistanis who had to choose between standing on their ideological (read Islamist) hobby horse on the one hand, and on the other, protecting their interests.
The way many pragmatic Pakistanis saw it, with the Arabs opening up to Israel, Pakistan wouldn’t face a backlash from the Islamic world if it also recognised Israel. Pakistanis believe there are real economic and diplomatic benefits that will come their way if they normalised relations with Israel: India would no longer get a walkover in Israel which would have to keep some balance in its relations with Pakistan; Pakistan would gain access to Israeli defence equipment; Israel could assist Pakistan in agriculture and other technology; Pakistan would be better placed to advocate the Palestinian cause with Israel; just as India used the Jewish lobby to gain influence in the US, Pakistan could too; Pakistan’s recognition would disincentivise the ‘Zionist conspiracies’ against Pakistan. In any case, Pakistan had no direct conflict with Israel and neither country posed any direct threat to each other. Finally, if the Arabs were reconciled to Israel, there was no reason for Pakistan to remain stuck in an ideological cul-de-sac.
Pakistanis believe there are real economic and diplomatic benefits that will come their way if they normalised relations with Israel: India would no longer get a walkover in Israel which would have to keep some balance in its relations with Pakistan
Clearly, strategically and diplomatically there is no real downside to recognising Israel. The problem is basically ideological and political. Like India, Israel is also an ideological blind-spot for Pakistan. In fact, Pakistan has boxed itself into a corner by indoctrinating its people against India and Israel – Yahood-o-Hunood’
, the arch-enemies, constantly conspiring against the Mumliqat-e-Khudadad
(God-gifted state). As a result any backtracking is now a political hot-potato, not just for politicians but also the military establishment. Imran Khan’s vicious and vindictive politics has further constricted the political space for the government. The opposition will tear the government apart if it moves an inch forward with Israel. The clerics too have weighed in against recognising Israel and threatened to go on the war-path. Political preservation and Ideological purity, which includes Jinnah’s antipathy towards the Jewish state, has taken precedence over pragmatism. Even within the military, there are officers who are opposed to recognising Israel. And then there is the ‘beloved’, if also lost, ‘Kashmir cause’ which Pakistanis believe will suffer a grievous blow if it reconciles and normalises relations with Israel.
Dreading the political fallout, the Pakistan government and military has for now decided to resist both the temptation and the pressure to recognise Israel. But for how long? Although Imran Khan has emphatically ruled out normalising relations until the three conditions given above are fulfilled, no one takes him seriously. For one, he is infamous as ‘U-turn Khan’, and could take a U-turn on the issue. This could happen if he manages to get off his born-again-Muslim and champion of Islamic causes hobby-horse, or because the army decides to bite the bullet, or even because US and Arab economic and political pressure becomes unsustainable. As far as the clergy is concerned, most of them are on the payroll of the Arab states and charities. A nudge and a wink, or even a squeeze and a from the Arabs should be enough to make these fellows fall in line. In fact they will readily find the Islamic logic and rationale in recognising Israel. There will be some who will continue to resist. But the naysayers can be easily controlled.
The thing is that whenever anyone in Pakistan decides to normalise with Israel, the same factors – split in army, opposition opposing the move, the clerics making threatening sounds – will have to be confronted. And if Pakistan sticks to the conditions it has laid down, then it may as well stop discussing Israel once and for all because there is no way Israel will fulfil these conditions only to have diplomatic relations with Pakistan, even less so when almost all relevant Islamic countries are already getting set to recognise Israel.
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