‘The foreign ministers of Israel and Pakistan met publicly for the first time on Thursday, a diplomatic breakthrough brokered by Turkey that appeared to be the first payoff for the Israeli pullout from the occupied Gaza Strip,’ reads the first sentence of a New York Times piece on September 2nd 2005. Fifteen years later, a storm in a teacup erupted in Pakistan as the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, secretly met the Israeli Prime Minister on Saudi soil. The question on everyone’s minds: should Pakistan recognize Israel?
Broadly speaking, almost everyone in Pakistan agrees that the moral case for recognizing Israel is a dumpster fire. The case for Israel is primarily built on this being in Pakistan’s national interest, especially since Arab countries are now leaning towards Israel. In my piece today, I will demolish the ‘national interest’ case for the recognition of Israel faster than the Israeli army can demolish a Palestinian home. Too soon? Fasten your bulldozer’s seat belt because we’re only getting started.
The Arab nations aren’t recognizing Israel, Arab dictators are.
Recognizing Israel has nothing in store for Pakistan
If Arab countries are moving with the times and recognizing Israel, why should Pakistan stay behind and choose to side with the Palestinians? First, let’s understand why the Saudis are flirting with Israel. It’s in the national interest of both the Saudis & Israelis to exert maximum pressure on Iran, while Trump is still in office and make it as difficult as possible for Biden to re-engage Iran. Therefore, both countries are encouraging the US to strike at Iranian nuclear capabilities before Trump leaves office, as was apparent in the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist recently. While this is sweet revenge for the attack on Saudi oil facilities by Iranian proxies & will weaken Israel’s arch-rival in the region, what Pakistani national interest does an attack on Iran serve? If anything, it sets a precedent for attacking a Muslim country’s nuclear capabilities. And it destabilizes our neighbour in the meanwhile.
Second, you can forget about Kashmir if you’re ready to sell out the Palestinian people. This isn’t just a moralistic argument; this is also global realpolitik. And Kashmir strikes at the very core of the construct that is the Pakistani state. After 70 years of whipping up public sentiment against the occupation of Kashmir & Palestine, suddenly recognizing Israel will make Khadim Rizvi’s funeral turn out look like a lawn sale at Gul Ahmed. Also, what is the point of having such a large army if Kashmir is not in play?
So, there are significant diplomatic or security disadvantages to recognizing Israel but what about economic advantages. Dollars are to the Pakistani economy what a heroin hit is to an addict. Let’s look at trade. Pakistan has three major exports: cotton, rice & more cotton. Jews don’t really eat a lot of rice. For the record, this pun is meant to cause offense to Pakistanis who can’t expand their export base and not to Jews. I don’t have any problems with the Jewish people, and only critique those that hold the Palestinians in apartheid. Exactly what economic windfall does Pakistan expect from recognizing Israel? I’ve heard whispers of technology transfers but what specific technology does Israel have today that our current trading partners like the US & Europe don’t have?
The case for Israel is primarily built on this being in Pakistan’s national interest, especially since Arab countries are now leaning towards Israel.
Not the right time or right reason
Now that I have all this out of my system, let’s take a step back. The Arab nations aren’t recognizing Israel, Arab dictators are. Pakistan, for all it’s flaws, is a boisterous democracy, where the voice of the people does and should matter in foreign policy. One cannot deny the existence of Israel, but one can use it’s leverage of granting recognition to extract concessions for the Palestinians. In short, while the case for recognizing Israel can be made, now is not the right time (with right-wing Netanyahu as PM of Israel) or the right reason (endorsing an Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran).
Pakistan being able to extract concessions for the Palestinians via its recognition of Israel isn’t a pipe dream, it’s the manifestation of a confident diplomatic outlook we’ve experienced before. Speaking about the meeting with the Pakistani Foreign Minister in 2005, the Israeli Foreign Minister commented that this engagement was part of the ‘fruits from our withdrawal from Gaza’ and expressed hope that the rest of the Muslim world would follow Pakistan’s lead.
The author is a recipient of the James A Wechsler Award for International Reporting and a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He is a senior columnist and writes primarily on Pakistan’s foreign policy. He tweets @MBilalLakhani.