UAE’s deal with Israel and Pakistan’s populist FP dilemma

Geo-political analyst and an ex-advisor to the Balochistan government discusses the implications of the UAE-Israel peace deal in the region at large, and how the deal might affect the foreign policy of Pakistan in the coming weeks and months.

Israel Pakistan

The UAE-Israel historic accord on “normalization of relations” have found resonance in Pakistan with many quarters in the country criticizing Dubai for normalizing diplomatic relations. They have ruled out any rapprochement with Israel in the near future.

But the new reality in the Middle East has shooked Islamic countries including Pakistan, which we must realise. Facts are that the capital city of Israel is Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv any more. We may not like it, but it’s a fact. Analyzing these facts make a case for adopting fresh thinking on Israel policy. This is where, for many, Pakistan’s relations with Israel will start to improve when facts replace slogans and myths. The first contested myth being “stolen Palestinian land.”

Pakistan should also learn that 95% of Palestinians’ problems stem from their societal embrace of terror against Israel as a strategy. The Palestinian Authority pays salaries to imprisoned terrorists. The more heinous their crimes, the more money they get.

How would Pakistanis feel if some crazy Jewish guy shot up a mosque in Islamabad, and Israel named a school in Haifa after him, and paid him a handsome salary? We would be outraged, right? So imagine how Israelis feel. Empathy is the start of understanding, and understanding is the basis of peace. This is where the UAE and other GCC countries have decided to revisit their policy on Israel.

Read more: El Al to fly first cargo flight to Dubai by an Israeli carrier

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 elite (from the extreme right to the left), by the many bureaucrats at the Foreign Office, and the risk-averse echelons of policymaking.

In the case of US and Iran’s movement 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?

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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-Israel) 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 analysed.

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 gains for themselves.

Read more: UAE-Israel deal a gamble for Palestinian peace: can the UAE succeed where others have failed?

Iran is a prominent enemy of Israel and claims to be a “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. It’s also using the cause for improving its stature within the Middle East vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia. It is alleged that Tehran is providing weapons and material support to Hamas to attack Israel, increase its vulnerabilities and weaken its deterrence abilities.

As far as backing the oppressed Palestinians is concerned, 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 its interests in the region by paying lip service to the Palestinian cause. Hamas as a proxy entity prefers to use the Palestinian cause for two strategic objectives: first, to continue its suffocating misrule in Gaza; second, to attack Israel, await a response and then play the victim card.

Iran and Hezbollah eventually moved their political bureau to Doha from Damascus after 2011 with the view to get financial, military and political support from Egypt

By creating an interesting dilemma for Israel, Hamas caters to the 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 thus the process confers legitimacy in the struggle of the Palestinians.

Hamas, in essence, enables Tehran’s 1,000-cuts-by proxy policy. It may be worth flagging that Hamas acted upon the advice of its ideological fountainhead ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ which took power in Egypt to sever ties with Syria, Iran and Hezbollah. It 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.

Palestinian Authority 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.

Read more: Can Turkey lecture UAE on Israel?

Iran and Hezbollah eventually moved their political bureau to Doha from Damascus after 2011 with the view to get financial, military and political support from Egypt.

It has created benefits for a war economy fully taking advantage of the situation and thus is 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 a 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.

Read more: UAE has ‘opened Muslim world to Zionists’ with Israel deal, warns Khamanei

The pledge 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 the Palestinian President Mehmood Abbas.

Hezbollah leveraging Palestinian cause for geopolitical gains

Leveraging the Palestinian cause, Hezbollah is another proxy that is extracting geopolitical 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.

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

For Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, the Palestinian issue is less important than a common geopolitical threat, Iran — to be dealt with by allying with both the US and Israel. Secondly, Israel is a modern and developed nation; it’s in the interest of Middle Eastern countries to form an alliance with it. 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 culminating in diplomatic relations between UAE and Israel.

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 in Syria. It is using the Palestinian issue to embarrass the GCC countries and pressurize Israel and its staunch ally the US.

Read more: Israel officials in historic flight to the UAE after the landmark peace accord

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. Oman, on the other hand, hosted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to prove its pro-US credentials with Washington which is very suspicious of its closed links with Tehran.

Palestine issue: where does Pakistan stand?

Islamabad’s underlying reasons not to engage with Israel and to support Palestinians have 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 as an ally of the oppressed. Furthermore, since 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 shift towards Israel may suggest a need for Pakistan to now rethink this).

Within Pakistan, the right-wing religious lobby has always pressurized the state to keep its sensitivity in view and not to cross the ‘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 been so high as it is today on Pakistan’s threat perception matrix. Given Israel’s close defence, intelligence and economic cooperation with India, this consideration has become a critical factor for Pakistan. Since India has forged a close nexus with Israel and the US, more than 13 percent of India’s defence spending is on Israeli equipment – and relations between the two give New Delhi unprecedented opportunity to leverage from Israel’s close ties with Washington to enhance its defence 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.

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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 a degree of legitimacy and acceptance from a large and important Muslim nuclear nation which enhances its position in the Middle East. It will also persuade Tel Aviv to respect 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 at the behest of Israel that Trump Administration hired its NSA, Ambassador John Bolton, who was 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 defence 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.

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.

Read more: Israeli PM says ‘many Arab nations in line’ to establish ties with Jewish state

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.

Read more: Israeli warplanes continue to pound hapless Gaza, Hamas retaliates with rockets

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 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 lobbies 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.

Read more: Pompeo to return after pushing Israel deal on anticlimatic Middle East tour

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.

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