Between a Rock and a hard place

Prof. Elie Podeh February 2021

It seems a just resolution of the Palestinian issue is the minimum that Pakistan will settle for if it is to recognize Israel.

Following the series of agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan in the autumn of 2020, a top official close to the Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan secretly arrived in Israel on November 20. He conveyed Pakistan’s desire for closer relations with Israel but intimated that this cooperation would need to be “soft” and “slow” due to domestic Pakistani opposition. Though Pakistan has not boarded the normalization ‘train’ yet, as the Trump administration and Israel would have wanted, it is a fact that Israel and Pakistan hold clandestine relations and this is a puzzle. While Israel is waging a fierce battle against Iran’s desire to go nuclear, it has not waged a similar battle against Pakistan, which acquired nuclear capability in 1998. A close scrutiny of Israel-Pakistan relations solves this puzzle.

Like other Arab and Muslim countries, Pakistan objected to the UN General Assembly resolutions 181 and 273, that supported the establishment of a Jewish State and its entry into the UN. Yet, in early 1953, Pakistan Foreign Minister Zafrallah Khan met with the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Abba Eban in New York. This first known official Israel-Pakistan meeting was a testament to the Pakistan government’s recognition of Israel’s role as a player in the Middle East. However, Pakistan did not consolidate relations with Israel due to Arab and Islamic opposition.

In 1998, Pakistan acquired nuclear capability in response to India’s success in producing nuclear weapons. This capability was achieved with the financial support of Libya and Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, Israel did not wage a public relations war against this “Pakistani threat” because, according to veteran Israeli diplomat Moshe Yegar, “Pakistan was considered in Israel as a responsible country and not one that sponsored terror.” Moreover, it is possible that through its ally, the U.S., Pakistan had promised Israel not to transmit any technological information to Israel’s enemies. Such a promise was indeed made in the 1990s, when Israel was apprehensive of the transmission of Pakistan’s nuclear knowledge to Iran or possibly to other adversaries. Such an assurance was later given by successive Pakistani leaders.

History shows that secret Israel-Pakistan meetings were held through the years, particularly after Israel’s establishment of diplomatic relations with India in 1992 and following the signing of the Oslo agreement with the Palestinians in 1993. For example, the Israeli ambassador to the UN, as well as a representative of Jewish organizations in the U.S., and even Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, met the Pakistan UN ambassador. Furthermore, Israeli President Ezer Weitzman met Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto during a visit to South Africa and with President Muhammad Rafiq Tarrar in Turkey. Israeli-Pakistani secret relations were strengthened after General Pervez Musharraf took power in Pakistan in 1999. One of the high points of these relations was the 2005 public meeting between Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and his counterpart, Khurshid Kasuri, in Istanbul. It was followed by a public handshake between President Musharraf and Prime Minister Sharon at the annual UN General Assembly session in New York. In addition, there have been visits by journalists to and from Pakistan, as well as attempts to establish economic cooperation between the two countries. There are also hints that Israeli arms were delivered to Pakistan.

While Israel is waging a fierce battle against Iran’s desire to go nuclear, it has not waged a similar battle against Pakistan.

These ongoing Israel-Pakistan secret contacts and a conscious attempt to preserve a positive status quo are a result of mutual interests: Israel has mainly been interested in receiving guarantees, time and again, that Pakistan’s nuclear capability or information would not be transferred to Israel’s adversaries. In addition, the fact that Israel held secret relations with the two biggest Islamic countries – Indonesia and Pakistan – is a source of pride and strength. Pakistan, for its part, has been guided by its desire to get the support of Israel and the Jewish lobby in the U.S. for acquiring arms and improving its image in the West. Pakistan is also interested in counter-balancing India’s growing political and military cooperation with Israel. While Israel was keen on publicizing these relations, Pakistan opted for secrecy or the maintenance of a low profile. This behaviour was on the basis of a fear that “normal” Israeli-Pakistani relations would spark religious opposition inside Pakistan and elsewhere in the Islamic world, thereby weakening the legitimacy of the regime.

The recent normalization agreements signed between Israel and several Arab countries led the U.S. to explore the possibility of enticing Pakistan to “join the club” in return for certain economic and military aid. The Saudis reportedly pressed Pakistan to take such a bold step, perhaps in order to pave the way for a similar step by Saudi Arabia in the future. However, the Pakistan prime minister stated that in spite of pressure on his government, any agreement with Israel was conditional upon a just solution to the Palestinian issue.

Israel-Pakistan relations seem to rest on solid ground. They demonstrate that Israel does not object in principle to an “Islamic nuclear bomb” but to a bomb that constitutes an existential threat, such as that which the Iranians seek. It would seem that progress on the Palestine front, or a change of heart on the part of the Saudis, would be necessary for the next stage in warming Israeli-Pakistani relations. In any case, an agreement with the Palestinians is worth seriously pursuing, given its potential to bring about a normalization of relations between Israel and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.

**The article was published on South Asia Magazine

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