Home Middle East & Turkey Middle East Relations beyond the veil: Pakistan, Israel and the Muslim world

Relations beyond the veil: Pakistan, Israel and the Muslim world

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Dr Zafar Khan Safdar |

The conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs has endured for more than a century. It centers on control of territory and, as common in such disputes, is characterized by conquest, destruction, and revenge, with all the animosity and sorrow that these actions bring. Because the land in question is terra sancta to three major religions, the conflict evokes powerful passions involving identity, honor, and the propriety of cultural claims. That its disputants employ sophisticated arguments and armaments, that they are willing to combat not only each other but rival voices within their own ranks, and that decades of international diplomacy have failed to produce a satisfactory solution.

The Jewish community was much more effective than the Arab side at building state-like institutions from 1881-1948. For instance, the Jewish Agency and its precursors functioned as a quasi-government. The Jewish National Fund raised capital to purchase land, often from absentee Arab landowners, for Jewish settlement. The city of Tel Aviv, established in 1909, rapidly became an urban center of Jewish life, and Jews established many agricultural collectives called kibbutzim.

The meeting between Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri and his Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom took place in response to Israel’s interest to establish contact with Pakistan.

The Arab side was less organized and more reactive. In the 1920s and 1930s, Arab leaders never seemed to settle on whether they wanted to work with the British and accept the premise of two communities, Arab and Jewish, in Palestine or reject cooperation and lump the Jews and British together as colonial interlopers. After World War-II, the British soon realized that their global empire was no longer tenable and that the mandate in Palestine was not workable. By 1945, the population of Palestine was just over 1.8 million, including 554,000 Jews (30.6%).

In February 1947, Britain asked the fledgling United Nations to address the question of Palestine. Like the Peel Plan of 1937, the majority of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) favored a partition of Palestine into two states, a Jewish one and an Arab one. According to UNSCOP, the Arab state would be about 42% of Palestine and the Jewish one about 55%; the remaining territory, including Jerusalem, would be an international zone.

Read more: ‘PSYOP’ against Pakistan: The ‘Propaganda’ about the Israeli Plane Landing in…

The Jewish state would have had about 500,000 Jews and 400,000 Arabs. On November 29, 1947, UNSCOP’s majority report was approved by the United Nations General Assembly. The Jews accepted partition, and the Arabs rejected it. Almost immediately, fighting started in Palestine between Jewish and Arab forces. Until Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, most of the fighting was between local forces. Once Israel declared independence, Arab states became directly involved. The Arab side failed to take advantage of its overall personnel edge by coordinating its military attacks.

By the time the fighting fully ended in early 1949, Israel controlled about 78% of the territory in UNSCOP’s plan. Jerusalem was not under international control. Israel controlled the west of the city while Transjordan, soon to be Jordan, held the east. Of the remaining 22%, Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip, and Jordan held and later annexed the West Bank. In 1949, Israel signed armistice agreements with Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Pakistan’s interests and involvement in Israel predate the partition of Palestine and can be traced to the days of the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

The city of Tel Aviv, established in 1909, rapidly became an urban center of Jewish life, and Jews established many agricultural collectives called kibbutzim.

Within weeks after Lord Balfour announced British support for a Jewish national home in Palestine and the capture of Jerusalem by General Allenby, the All-India Muslim League, which was leading the struggle for Pakistan, expressed its concern for the ‘safety and sanctity of holy places’. Palestine was part of the Jazirat al-Arab and hence could not be placed under non-Muslim rule, let alone handed over to non-Muslims. This opposition to non-Muslim rule over Islamic territories remained vocal even after independence of Pakistan.

Pakistan and Israel have never been directly engaged in any conflict with each other. Siding with the Arab world in their war against Israel was due to Pakistan’s recognition of Palestine and support to Palestinian Muslims in acquiring their due rights against Israel’s aggressions. Moreover, Indo-Israel contacts were also subsisting concerns leading to Pakistan’s security, resulting in obliterating balance of power in the sub-continent. Diplomatic ties have not been established between the two, nevertheless, Pakistan and Israel use their embassies at Istanbul to mediate or exchange information with each other.

Read more: Pakistan must not recognize Israel: Amr Moussa

Pakistan at the official and popular level, exhibit vehement opposition and promote itself as a consistent supporter of the Palestinian cause. But at the same time, its pro-western disposition, proximity to conservative regimes in the Middle East and its disapproval of Nasser’s brand of Arab nationalism, compel Pakistan to take a pragmatic approach to Israel. Prolonged anti-Israel rhetoric has not inhibited Pakistan from seeking and maintaining contacts, and even limited understandings, with Israel.

However, until recently it was unable to articulate a pro-Israel policy in public. With the inauguration of the Oslo process, influential segments of the Pakistani intellectual elite began to call for a subtle change in the country’s Israel policy. Pakistan in solidarity with other Arab-Muslim states is reluctant to recognize and establish diplomatic ties with Israel.

By the time the fighting fully ended in early 1949, Israel controlled about 78% of the territory in UNSCOP’s plan. Jerusalem was not under international control.

These Muslim states include Saudi Arabia, Libya, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Syria, UAE, Yemen, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Indonesia Algeria, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia, and Algeria. Another reason for refraining from diplomatic ties with Israel is the fear of an adverse response by influential Islamists within and outside the state. Pakistan could only cope with this risk if most other Arab and Muslim states set up ties with Israel.

Read more: Should Pakistan ‘establish contacts’ with Israel just like KSA?

General Zia-ul-Haq in the late 70s was the only person at that time who wanted a close relation with Israel and in fact, he established secret intelligence relations with Israel over different operations. Former President Pervez Musharraf was the first Pakistani Muslim leader who was interviewed by Israeli newspaper in London and was the first Muslim leader who delivered a speech in the World Jewish Congress.

Musharraf had openly spoken in favor of diplomatic relation with Israel. During his regime, recognition of Israel was debated at academic, official as well as public levels, and the Hebrew daily newspaper Ma’ariv reported that covert contacts between representatives of the Jewish state and Pakistan had been going on for several months through diplomatic and informal channels. In 2005, the meeting between Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri and his Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom took place in response to Israel’s interest to establish contact with Pakistan. While formalization of ties is unlikely to be immediate, for strategic reasons, both Pakistan and Israel will continue to maintain their private links and political interactions.

Dr Zafar Khan Safdar is PhD in Political Science and a civil servant based in Islamabad. His area of specialization is political development and social change. He can be followed on twitter @zafarkhansafdar. The Views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.


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