A question that Pakistan’s policymakers have deftly avoided answering for decades is at what point should it review its paradigm on non-engagement with the state of Israel? This million-dollar question has been summarily rejected by the country’s political persuasions (from the extreme right to the left wing), by the many bureaucrats at the Foreign Office, and the risk-averse echelons of Pakistan’s armed forces.
Given the US and Iran’s movements towards a collision course or in a potential conflagration involving Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries can Islamabad continue to afford to sit idle on the side? Is Pakistan’s refusal to engage with Israel based on pragmatic, practical foreign policy imperatives or is it a mere outcome of conspiracy theories, irrationality, and dogma from a bygone era?
Pakistan’s continuing conflation of two different dynamics going on in the Middle East one of the past century (the issue of occupied territories), and the other a recent phenomenon (a massively technologically-advanced Middle Eastern country) is a serious misstep in the nation’s robust first-order priorities in its foreign policy. Foreign policy objectives should always be dispassionate and thoroughly mulled over and analyzed.
Any diplomatic engagement with Israel is by-and-large rejected in the country exclusively on the premise that it has occupied Palestinian territory and hence is an aggressor. Thus, it is advocated, boycott and isolation is the best course to deal with Israel unless Tel Aviv accepts some solution to the issue of Palestinian rights in line with their aspirations.
Use of Palestinian cause as ‘Geopolitical Instrument’
Ironically, many Muslim-majority countries do not support the Palestinian cause out of totally altruistic compulsions that they are being oppressed. But the reality is that many of these Muslim countries have been “instrumentalizing” the Palestinian cause to extract geopolitical goals for themselves.
Iran is a prominent enemy of Israel and claims to be “true believer” of the Palestinian cause. However, it has failed to help the Palestinians in any meaningful way except for propping up Hamas as a proxy to blackmail Israel, and by extension the US, and for improving its image within the Middle East vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia. Allegations abound over Tehran providing weapons and material support to attack Israel to increase its vulnerabilities and weaken its deterrence abilities.
That as far as backing the oppressed Palestinians, normal relations with Israel will never deter Islamabad from supporting Palestinians aspirations to be fulfilled. This is our right and belief in their cause. However, this should not prevent us from talking to Israel.
Tehran has camouflaged its proxy capabilities in Palestine to balance against its interests in the region by giving lip service to their cause. Hamas as a proxy entity prefers to use the Palestinian cause for two strategic objectives: first, to continue its suffocating misrule in Gaza and, second to attack Israel to gain popularity through Israeli reprisal attacks portraying itself as a victim of Israeli aggression.
By creating an interesting dilemma for Israel, Hamas caters to a grand strategic goal of its patron, Iran. When Hamas launches rocket attacks on Israel, it forces Tel Aviv to respond as its minimum deterrence would call for, and thereby casts itself as an aggressor in the eyes of Muslim-majority countries and the process confers legitimacy on the struggle of Palestinians.
Hamas, in essence, enables Tehran’s 1,000-cuts-byproxy policy. It may be worth flagging that Hamas acted upon the advice of its ideological fountain head-Muslim Brotherhood which took power in Egypt to sever ties with Syria, Iran and Hezbollah and eventually moved its political bureau to Doha from Damascus after 2011, with the view to get financial, military and political support from Egypt.
Later after a thaw in ties between Iran and Hamas, a high-level delegation of Hamas visited Tehran in 2017, to restore financial support to its armed wing again using the Palestinian cause as an “instrument” of power politics to perpetuate its rule in Gaza.
was established under the Oslo Accords, negotiated by the Palestinian Umbrella Organization (i.e. PLO comprising mainly Al-Fatah). The Palestinian Authority derives maximum advantage from the current status quo as it is corrupt to the core, unpopular and using the Palestinian cause to continue with its cronies in power.
Iran and Hezbollah and eventually moved its political bureau to Doha from Damascus after 2011, with the view to get financial, military and political support from Egypt.
It has created and benefits from a war economy fully taking advantage of the situation and thus not interested in resolving the issue. In hindsight, it can be understood as to why the Palestinian Liberation Organization did not want to implement the historic Oslo accords (i.e. for it has no incentive to do so given its status as the sole claimant to power in the West Bank).
Had it shown vision, leadership, and pragmatism by accepting the former Israeli PM Ehud Barak’s generous offer of two-state solution, under President Clinton’s watch, the Palestinian state would now have existed for more than 13 years. But it was PLO’s negotiators who first offered land concessions earlier—regardless of whatever rhetoric both Israelis and Palestinians hardliners adopt today.
The pledge today of PM Netanyahu to annex some portions of settlements in the West Bank and plan to build more housing units in the settlements, would have been unimaginable, had the Palestinian negotiators themselves not agreed to the Israeli annexation of some settlement blocks in the West Bank prior to second Camp David summit in 2000; in exchange, Palestinians agreed they would be compensated by land swap elsewhere.
This is explained in both drafts —the 2000 draft agreement and in Ehud Olmert’s peace proposal of 2008 to Palestinian President Mehmood Abbas. Leveraging the Palestinian cause, Hezbollah is another proxy that is extracting geo-political benefits by serving the goals of its patron state (Iran): undermining Israel, and making Tel Aviv an insecure state.
It acts however and whenever Tehran wants to drive home this message. Hezbollah has always used Palestinian cause to improve its declining reputation and legitimacy in the Arab world. However, ironically, it ruthlessly suppressed Palestinian refugees in Lebanon when it got a chance.
Pakistan’s continuing conflation of two different dynamics going on in the Middle East one of the past century (the issue of occupied territories), and a recent phenomenon (a massively technologically advanced Middle Eastern country) is a serious misstep in the nation’s robust first order priorities in its foreign policy.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, the Palestinian issue is less important than a common threat (Iran) to be dealt with by allying with both the US and Israel to confront Tehran. Thus it is up to individual Arab states to break the ice (or bread) with Tel Aviv, and this is why these countries have in varying degrees both covertly and overtly improved ties with Israel.
Over the past five years, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have emerged as arguably the two most energetic pro-Israeli states regionally. Anyone against these lines in these countries invokes the wrath of the state. For Saudi Arabia, the primary objective is also to be the potential custodian of Al-Aqsa Mosque competing with Jordon for the latter’s quest to acquire the status of patron of the third holiest site in Islam.
Turkey has joined Iran to use Palestinian cause as a lever to project a more significant leadership role in the Middle East and beyond after overcoming differences on Syria. It is using Palestinian issue to embarrass the GCC countries and pressurize Israel hence the US, as part of its anti-western pivot.
Qatar in its rivalry with the GCC countries for geopolitical influence, supports Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban to project an independent foreign policy in the Arab world, for which it receives criticism from the Palestinian Authority. Tiny Oman hosted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to prove its pro-US credentials with Washington which is very suspicious of its closed links with Tehran.
Pakistan – Islamabad’s underlying reasons not to engage with Israel and to support Palestinians has several rationales. The first is a utilitarian one that without any apparent quid pro quo from Israel, it is better to pick the Palestinian side and be counted an ally of the oppressed. Furthermore since the most of the Muslim-majority countries particularly the GCC countries have no formal relations with Israel, it is better to keep their trust by supporting the Palestinian cause (although their movement towards Israel may suggest a need for Pakistan to now rethink this).
Hezbollah has always used Palestinian cause to improve its declining reputation and legitimacy in the Arab world. However, ironically, it ruthlessly suppressed Palestinian refugees in Lebanon when it got a chance.
Within Pakistan, the right-wing religious lobby has always pressurized the state to keep its sensitivity in view and not to cross their redline as they believe Jews cannot be friends of Muslims. Most importantly until recently, Israel was never seen in Pakistan as a geopolitical, economic and strategically important country in the Middle East, as it is today, that it should compel Islamabad to review its policy.
Finally, recognition of Israel or relations with Israel has never figured as high as it is today on Pakistan’s threat perception matrix. Now given Israel’s close defense, intelligence and economic cooperation with India this consideration has become a critical factor for Pakistan.
Pragmatic Reasons to Engage Israel?
Let me state from the outset that as far as backing the oppressed Palestinians, normal relations with Israel will never deter Islamabad from supporting Palestinians aspirations to be fulfilled. This is our right and belief in their cause. However, this should not prevent us from talking to Israel, and there are many reasons why Pakistan talking to Israel can make a stronger case both for the Palestinians and for itself. India has forged a close nexus with Israel and the US.
More than 13 percent of India’s defense spending is on Israeli equipment – and relations between the two give Delhi unprecedented opportunity to leverage from Israel’s close ties with Washington to its defense and intel capabilities; making it all the more important for Pakistan to think of balancing against Indian ingress through a possible rapprochement with Tel Aviv.
It is becoming our national security imperative to address this “real or mythical” nexus of India, Israel, and the US against Islamabad, which is possible via a pragmatic engagement. Indeed, bemoaning such a link is not a rational strategy.
A normalization of relations offers Israel legitimacy and acceptance from a large Muslim nuclear nation which enhances its position in the Middle East and hence improve understanding by Tel Aviv over Pakistan’s redlines. This is a price Islamabad has to consider given its ever-growing power differential with India and the latter’s ever-improving relations with the US.
It was on the behest of Israel that Trump Administration hired its NSA, Ambassador John Bolton, who is now shaping critical US national Security assessments including the South Asian security brief. Israel has transformed itself from an agricultural country to the status of the world’s eighth most powerful country.
A world leader in technology; a country that can go to the moon; a leader in AI, logarithm and smart agriculture, besides, its immense defense capabilities. Tel Aviv is a reality, although we were all raised to understand that it is only about occupied territories and that we should not think of shared interests, or that both nations were created on the name of religion, but instead emotions should determine our approach to Israel.
Tiny Oman hosted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to prove its pro-US credentials with Washington which is very suspicious of its closed links with Tehran.
This is in contrast to our calculus on India, which despite having occupied Kashmir (and killing thousands of Kashmiris); and, notwithstanding its conflagrations with Islamabad we still justify a healthy diplomatic relationship and talk of how to improve it between the two countries.
The Palestinian Authority has always supported India and in the recent past recalled its Ambassador from Islamabad who endorsed the Pakistani point of view on Kashmir; hence we also need to proportionately rebalance our relations with Palestinian entities.
Realpolitik makes the dream of the two-state solution more elusive given the US has recently endorsed Israel’s right to sovereignty on Golan Heights, and possible annexation of West Bank settlements by Israel. This is in contrast with the Israeli dilemma of a burgeoning Palestinian population potentially turning Israelis into a minority if the one state policy of Israel persists.
This fear suggests that it would ultimately have to accept the two-state solution with some sort of land swap arrangement eventually. The pre-supposition by Pakistan that it should wait to recognize Israel until a balance is found between Israel as a secure state with increased autonomy and self-rule of Palestinians is illogical at best and delusional at worst.
More so when Palestinians have a weaker position with very little leverage, few real allies, and lack credible leaders and when the only real possibility of a viable state they have is a merger of Gaza with the Sinai Peninsula as envisaged by the proposed Trump Middle East “Deal of the Century” plan suggests.
The growing thaw in relations of Pakistan’s strategic partners in GCC towards Israel makes it easier and necessary for Islamabad to follow their lead as it was Arab countries’ sensitivity vis-a-vis Israel due to which it had withheld full recognition of Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv is a reality, although we were all raised to understand that it is only about occupied territories and that we should not think of shared interests, or that both nations were created on the name of religion.
Arabs have even revisited their threat perception: Jamal al-Suwaidi, the founder of the government-backed Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, put it more bluntly: “The Palestinian cause is no longer at the forefront of Arabs’ interests, as it used to be for long decades; it has sharply lost priority in light of the challenges, threats, and problems that face countries of the region.”
The sensitivity of Pakistan’s right-wing lobby is not a reasonable justification to not revisit foreign policy fundamentals. This is time to roll back their influence on necessary statecraft and geopolitical choices since for too long we have let them use their vast networks of madrassas, Khanaqas, and street muscle to hostage the state.
The ingress of Israel in the financial, media, capital and entertainment world is enormous. Furthermore, its influence in Washington through robust Jewish networks and caucus votes in the House, provide ample opportunity to Pakistan to leverage for strategic gain, soft image, loans and other benefits similar to what India is gaining.
The new game changer in the region revolves around connectivity and increased links of trade and routes; this also figures on the connectivity radar of the Israelis. There is a proposal by Saudi Arabia to link Gwadar with Oman via a seabed railway tunnel or bridge; and, potentially connecting the proposed Israeli railway corridor with GCC countries. Tel Aviv wants to connect via Jordon and Saudi Arabia encompassing Oman.
Since Iran has bad relations with the GCC countries and Israel, It will be Pakistan which will significantly benefit from any Mediterranean or Gulf railway links and enhanced trade preceding new geopolitical realignments. Thus CPEC will be complementing the Mediterranean Corridor eventually.
Israel being at the confluence of artificial intelligence, surveillance capabilities and IT revolution with smart agricultural solutions, offer enormous potential to Pakistan, which is lagging behind India, and needs to immediately modernize its defense capabilities, its economy, its agriculture, and human capital.
Any possible rapprochement should be informed by a balanced approach towards weighing sensibly the main drivers hitherto guiding our foreign policy choices: the weight of history, conspiracy theories, irrational constructs and only the one paradigm (occupied territories lens).
We need to a have a routine relationship with Israel like the KSA, UAE, Oman, Egypt, Turkey—having overt and covert links among others and any possible rapprochement does not mean Palestinian issue has gone away just like improved trade, air travel protocol and normal diplomatic relations with India does not mean diminishing of the Kashmir cause or Pakistan’s support for it.
Jan Achakzai, a politician from Balochistan, is a geopolitical analyst and an ex-advisor to the Balochistan government on media and strategic communication. He also remained associated with BBC World Service.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.