'Our stand on Israel is clear,’ Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan said this week. ‘We cannot recognise Israel until Palestinians get their right’, he said. For Khan, the UAE’s deal with Israel – which will inevitably lead to more Muslim states formalising relations with Israel – counts for little. But Khan is no stranger to volte-faces. It’s time for him to make another one – and formalise ties with Israel.
Pakistan was actually closer to recognising Israel this time last year, in the aftermath of India scrapping the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, than it is today. Many politicians in Pakistan came to realise that if the Arab states aren’t backing Pakistan’s Kashmir narrative and are actually enhancing relations with India, Pakistan should have no obligation to boycott Israel. But the last twelve months have led to setbacks in securing any move towards a break in the deadlock.
Pakistan’s foreign policy has undergone a major reshuffle over the past couple of weeks, spearheaded by an unprecedented clash with Saudi Arabia over the inaction of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on Kashmir. This has consolidated Pakistan’s position in the Chinese and Turkish camps. But this, in turn, now makes it harder for Pakistan to change its stance on Israel. After all, it will be difficult for Khan to suggest that a formalising of relations with Israel following the UAE deal is part of a Gulf or Muslim state consensus. As a result, a domestic backlash in Pakistan to any such move becomes inevitable.
But while Pakistan remains one of the now 31 states that do not recognise Israel, the two countries have much more in common than Khan would like to admit. Both were founded on religious nationalism, carved along communal lines as per two-state solutions proposed under the British mandates. But only one – a separate Muslim state, rather than a separate Jewish state – was unanimously accepted.
So what is it about Israel that Pakistan won’t accept? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that a toxic blend of conspiracism about Israel and anti-Semitism in Pakistan is to blame. While Khan and others point to the occupation of the Palestinian territories as the reason, Islamist resistance against a Jewish state being created on the third holiest site in Islam is much more likely to be the cause as to why many here just won’t accept Israel’s existence. Of course, if there was any semblance of moral consistency here, Uyghur concentration camps, or settlements in Cyprus, would have, at the very least, been Pakistan’s topics of discussion with China and Turkey. But on those issues, Pakistan is largely silent.
In a country where mosque sermons call for the ‘destruction of Jews and Israel’, and where anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are a part of religious and political discourse, even many ‘progressives’ find it hard to envisage a reconsidering of Pakistan’s policy on Israel.
But these views haven’t stopped the two countries working together when it suits. Islamist dictator Zia-ul-Haq spearheaded the ISI’s intelligence collaboration with Mossad in the 1980s, as part of CIA-led operations in Afghanistan, even urging the Palestine Liberation Organisation to recognise Israel. Since then Pakistan’s military and intelligence cooperation with Israel has continued, despite the refusal to formalise relations. But all the while, the dream of a separate Palestinian homeland has faded.
Now, surely, it is time for Khan and Pakistan to formalise these ties. Today, when Pakistan is rethinking its decades old subservience to Saudi Arabia (and even being willing to call out Saudi Arabia over its failure to provide support on Kashmir), it should consider how formalising defence ties with Israel could actually counterbalance India’s use of Israeli military equipment. Just like the position on Kashmiris – and hopefully Uyghurs and Kurds one day – Pakistan can take a stand for Palestinians, while forming diplomatic ties with those who have wronged them.
The hysterics on all-sides have hindered progress for Palestine by disallowing actual debate on Israel. That hysteria is best epitomised by Turkey – the first majority Muslim country to recognise Israel, with bilateral deals spanning commerce and military – going berserk over the UAE’s move.
Without such histrionics, a coherent narrative for the creation of a separate state of Palestine, without the denial of Israel, could have been a reality. Even today, the Muslim world’s collective recognition of Israel could actually be used as a bargaining chip to extricate a sovereign Palestinian state.
For whether Khan likes it or not, the truth is that today Israel is as legitimate as any other post-World War II nation state. Its abuses merit as much condemnation, and counteraction, as that of any other state. And Pakistan, which under most circumstances would find it hard to take a moral high ground over most states, including Israel, can benefit itself – and the Palestinians – through a rethink that should’ve taken place long ago.