There is occasional debate in Pakistan on the issue of recognizing Israel. After several days of discussing the pros and cons of establishing diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, the matter returns to firewood, until next time. In recent weeks, the issue of Israel has again become a matter of public debate. This latest episode begins after the UAE and Bahrain decided to establish full diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv.
The speed with which Israel and the UAE are moving towards normalization stunned everyone in Pakistan. Almost everyone in Pakistan believes that the Saudis are tacitly supporting the Abrahamic Treaty which paved the way for UAE-Israel relations. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s ‘elected’ Prime Minister Imran Khan told reporters he was on the ground tremendous pressure to recognizes Israel. After reports of a secret meeting between the Israeli Prime Minister and the Saudi Crown Prince emerged, the debate in Pakistan over recognition of Israel became even more urgent, especially after journalists known as mouthpieces of military rule began to consider supporting ties with Israel.
The speed with which Israel and the UAE are moving towards normalization stunned everyone in Pakistan. Almost everyone in Pakistan believes that the Saudis are tacitly supporting the Abrahamic Treaty which paved the way for UAE-Israel relations.
That defense Israel by honorary majors and colonels Media Corps of the Pakistani Army is seen as a balloon experiment floated by the Pakistan Army to gauge public reaction before they make a decision. But the balloon soon deflated as opponents not only in the media but in politics, civil society, clergy and every other section of society opposed any approach to Israel. Not long after Imran Khan and then Pakistan Foreign Office states that there is no question of recognizing Israel until it agrees to a two-state solution, restoring pre-1967 borders and Jerusalem to becoming the capital of a Palestinian state. With rumors circulating that the Army is not on the same page as the ‘elected’ government, the soldiers were forced to explain that it supports the government in this matter.
For decades, and especially after India restored full diplomatic ties with Israel in the early 1990s, Pakistan faced a dilemma of whether or not to follow suit. While there have always been voices in Pakistan to recognize Israel, that dilemma is easily resolved in a world much simpler than it is today. With much of the Islamic world refusing to accept Israel, there is little incentive for Pakistan to go against the tide. Doing so would mean challenging the Arab world, which is the lifeline of Pakistan’s economy. Pakistan of course maintains some back-line contact with Israel. In his book, former foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri reveals that Pakistani officials will frequently contact their Israeli counterparts to convey messages, seek and provide guarantees, and even discuss security issues involving other countries. But formal recognition, even if discussed, is never really on the table.
There was a bit of a stir in 2005 when Kasuri’s meeting with his Israeli counterpart in Turkey was followed by a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Pakistani military dictator Pervez Musharraf at the United Nations. Although billed as ‘chance encounter’ – Sharon later said she never met anyone by chance – it’s clear that the back channel is active to make the two meet and exchange pleasantries. But even though the good votes came from Israel – the Israeli foreign minister said it was Israel don’t see Pakistan as an enemy and faces no threat from Pakistan’s nuclear program (The News International 19/9/2005) – bilateral relations are not moving forward.
Despite the good voices coming from Israel – the Israeli foreign minister says it’s Israel instead don’t see Pakistan as an enemy and faces no threat from Pakistan’s nuclear program (The News International 19/9/2005) – bilateral relations are not moving forward
Nearly a quarter of a century after the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, geopolitics in the middle east began to undergo major changes once again in the mid-2010s. Among other things, the ‘Arab Spring’, Iran’s aggressive adventures and expanding footprints, increasing security challenges due to terrorism, and the loss of US interest in the region are prompting new alignments. Around that time, reports of informal contact between Israelis and Arabs (in particular, Saudi Arabia) began to spread. One of them meeting facilitated by India. A statement from the Saudi Crown Prince about accepting Israel with a warning was also made. In 2018, a mysterious flight from an Israeli business jet to Islamabad reported. Although the Pakistani authorities firmly deny the existence of any such flights, rumors continue to swirl. After the UAE and Bahrain recognized Israel, Sudan followed suit, and there were reports from other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, preparing to normalize diplomatic ties with Israel, Pakistan was in a quandary of whether to join the bandwagon or swim against the tide.
The report began to put a cycle of increasing pressure on Pakistan from Arab countries. as well as the US, to follow suit. The Saudis’ unprecedented decision to demand repayment of loans it has made to Pakistan, coupled with a refusal to extend a suspended oil facility is seen as part of the pressure. The UAE also refused to extend its loan and further reversed the screw by placing visa restrictions. Pakistanis believe that there is full pressure from the Arabs on the Israeli problem. For the first time, Israel poses a real dilemma for Pakistanis who have to choose between standing on the horse of an ideological hobby (read Islamist) on the one hand, and protecting their interests on the other.
In the view of many pragmatic Pakistanis, with Arabs opening up to Israel, Pakistan would not have faced a violent backlash from the Islamic world if Pakistan also recognized Israel. Pakistanis believe there are real economic and diplomatic benefits they will receive if they normalize relations with Israel: India will no longer benefit from Israel, which has to balance its relationship with Pakistan; Pakistan will get access to Israeli defense equipment; Israel can help Pakistan in agriculture and other technology; Pakistan would be better placed to advocate for the Palestinian cause with Israel; just as India uses the Jewish lobby to gain influence in the US, so can Pakistan; Recognition of Pakistan will eliminate the “Zionist conspiracy” against Pakistan. After all, Pakistan has no direct conflict with Israel and neither country poses a direct threat to one another. Finally, if Arabs are reconciled with Israel, there is no reason for Pakistan to remain stuck in an ideological stalemate.
Pakistanis believe there are real economic and diplomatic benefits they will receive if they normalize relations with Israel: India will no longer benefit from Israel having to balance its relations with Pakistan.
Clearly, strategically and diplomatically there is no real downside to recognizing Israel. The problem is inherently ideological and political. Like India, Israel is also an ideological blind spot for Pakistan. In fact, Pakistan has cornered itself by indoctrinating its people against India and Israel – Yahood-o-Hunood ‘, nemesis, constantly conspires against Mumliqat-e-Khudadad (The country that is blessed by God). As a result, any setback is now a political hot-potato, not only for politicians but also for the military. Imran Khan’s harsh and vengeful politics further limits the political space for the government. The opposition will destroy the government if it moves one inch forward with Israel. The clerics have also considered disowning Israel and threatening to pursue the path of war. Preservation of politics and ideological purity, which included Jinnah’s antipathy to the Jewish state, took precedence over pragmatism. Even within the military, there are officers who oppose Israel’s recognition. And then there are the ‘loved ones’, if also lost, the ‘Kashmiri causes’ that Pakistanis believe will suffer a grievous blow if they reconcile and normalize relations with Israel.
Fearing political repercussions, the Pakistani government and military have for now decided to resist the temptation and pressure to recognize Israel. But for how long? Although Imran Khan emphatically ruled out normalizing the relationship until the three conditions given above are met, no one takes it seriously. For one, he’s famous as the ‘U-turn Khan’, and could take a turn on the issue. This could happen if he succeeds in breaking away from born-again Muslims and his hobbyist supporters of Islam, or because the army decides to take the bitter pill, or even because US and Arab economic and political pressures become unsustainable. As far as priests are concerned, most of them are paid by Arab countries and charities. The shoving and winking, or even the urging and winking of the Arabs was enough to keep these people in line. In fact they will easily find the logic and reasons of Islam in recognizing Israel. There will be some who will continue to fight. But opponents can easily be controlled.
The problem is that whenever someone in Pakistan decides to go normal with Israel, the same factors – divisions in the army, opposition opposing the move, clerics making threatening voices – must be confronted. And if Pakistan sticks to the conditions it has laid down, then it might as well stop discussing Israel for good because there is no way Israel will fulfill this requirement just to have diplomatic relations with Pakistan, let alone if almost all of Islam is relevant. the countries are prepared to recognize Israel.