There is much speculation in the Pakistani and Israeli media about imminent establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Whether this turns out to be true or not, Pakistan is undoubtedly in the middle of a major debate on its international relations. To be sure, the idea of having ties with Israel has been discussed before in Pakistan. The current discourse, however, is part of a new urgency to revamp Pakistan’s foreign policy.
One of the compelling factors in Islamabad’s rethink has been its difficulty in mobilising international support against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s muscular policies towards Pakistan and Kashmir. Another is the growing sense in Islamabad and Rawalpindi about Pakistan’s current alienation from its traditional allies in the West and the Muslim world. Pakistan’s “deep state” — or the moniker now in vogue, “ miltablishment” — is eager to put the nation’s foreign policy back on track and correct the emerging international tilt (with the honourable exception of China) in favour of India.
Pakistan’s vigorous foreign policy rejigging is complemented by the decision to implement harsh economic reforms mandated by the IMF, which has come to Pakistan’s rescue for the 13th time in the last four decades. The danger of an immediate political backlash has been neutralised by the military establishment’s decision to lock up a former president, Asif Ali Zardari of the PPP, and two former PMs, Nawaz Sharif and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi of the Muslim League. When Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz took to the streets to mobilise people against the government, she soon found herself behind bars.
The July visit to Washington by the Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa underlined the miltablishment’s determination to end the steady deterioration in bilateral relations with the US since the beginning of this decade and a more rapid decline under President Donald Trump. In offering to “extricate” the US from Afghanistan and facilitating a peace deal between the US and the Taliban, the miltablishment saw the road to strategic rehabilitation in Washington and more broadly with the West. Whether this strategy will survive the suspension of the peace talks with the Taliban, announced by US President Donald Trump over the weekend, remains to be seen.
Pakistan’s debate on engaging Israel is also driven by the belief that India’s special relationship with Israel has given Delhi many advantages. Pragmatists in Islamabad and Rawalpindi have argued that normal relations with Israel would improve Pakistan’s standing in the US and help dent India’s influence in Washington and disrupt its partnership with the influential Jewish community in America.
Realists in Islamabad also point to the profound changes taking place in the Middle East and the growing engagement between Israel and some of the Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that have been among Pakistan’s closest partners. Although they do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, shared threat perceptions about Iran have nudged Riyadh and Abu Dhabi closer to Jerusalem. (At present Egypt, Turkey and Jordan are among the few Arab and Muslim countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel.)
Pakistan has debated the merits of engaging Israel ever since India established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. But it was General Pervez Musharraf who opened up Pakistan’s debate on Israel in the early 2000s. Despite Musharraf’s clear-eyed logic of Pakistan’s self-interest in establishing ties with Israel, there was no forward movement in Islamabad. The general could not overcome Pakistan’s ideological narrative that called for unflinching opposition to the Jewish state in the name of proclaimed solidarity with the Muslim ummah.
Can General Bajwa do what General Musharraf could not? If you are a sceptic you might say it is a bridge too far. After all, Pakistan has long told itself that India and Israel were alike in their “occupation” of Kashmir and Palestine. And that the insurgency in Kashmir, backed by Pakistan, was the same as Palestinian “Intifida” against Israel.
If you are a cynic, however, you might believe that Rawalpindi can easily finesse the ideology of Pakistan if it can score some gains against India. Should Delhi be worried about an engagement, covert or overt, leading to normalisation of relations between Pakistan and Israel? Not really.
Delhi is aware that Jerusalem will welcome formal or informal relationships with any Islamic country, big or small. Ending its isolation in the Islamic world is a major priority for Israel. Although Pakistan sees Israel as an enemy, Israel has no reason to reciprocate the sentiment.
Much in the manner that India pursues relations with all the major players in the Middle East, without reference to their mutual rivalries, Israel would like to do the same in the Subcontinent. Israel would certainly bet that if Islamabad makes a move, Dhaka would find it easier to overcome its own Islamist resistance to relations with Israel. Normal relations with the South Asian Muslims — who constitute more than 40 per cent of the world’s Islamic population — will be a huge diplomatic triumph for Israel.
Some in Delhi might love to see Pakistan eat its long-standing rhetoric on Hindu-Yehudi conspiracies. More seriously, it will be easier for India to deal with a Pakistan that defines its interests as a territorial state. Delhi has found it hard to normalise relations with Islamabad that sees itself as a religious cause. But if Pakistan were a normal country, there would be much room for give and take and the political basis for peaceful coexistence.
This first appeared in The Indian Express print edition with the headline A different worldview.
The writer is Director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express.