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When Pakistan embraces Israel

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

The word is out that Saudi Arabia, America and even the Pakistani army wants Prime Minister Imran Khan to normalise relations with Israel. Here is why, with adequate pressure, and despite his protestations, Khan is bound to comply.

The flags of Israel (in white and blue) and Pakistan.

The founding father of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah is said to have snubbed Ben Gurion, the founder of the state of Israel, on a request for diplomatic ties between the two states, both based on the idea of a homeland for a religious community, that were created around the same time, Israel and Pakistan. In the words of the Oxford scholar Faisal Devji, Pakistan was, and is, the Muslim Zion, built not only on religious affiliation but a certain sense of ideological belonging unrooted in traditional ties of land and peoples.

But for seven decades, Pakistan, following the example of its founding father, found it fit to denounce, in the harshest possible terms, Israel and ‘the Zionists’, including all the conspiracy-making such frameworks engender. Such criticism, often violent, in Pakistan has only grown stronger as ties between India and Israel have warmed to unprecedented heights in recent years, and with the administration of Donald Trump showing unfettered support for the Middle Eastern democracy.

Now Pakistan faces a new reality. Saudi Arabia, signs suggest, is planning a peace deal with Israel, which, by any standards, would be epoch-making. And, perhaps as a precursor, is pushing Pakistan to normalise its ties with Israel first.

Under American deal-making, the Gulf kingdoms have started signing historic peace deals with the country that, until recently, had been their sworn enemy. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have now joined Egypt and Jordan in ‘normalising’ ties with Israel. All evidence suggests – including strong rumours about a recent visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Saudi Arabia (the first ever such visit, if proved to be true) of an Israeli premier to the kingdom that controls Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina - that negotiations for a peace deal are underway. As an aside, it is to be noted that Netanyahu is said to have travelled to Saudi Arabia with Yossi Cohen, the head of the country’s famed secret service, Mossad, and the man the Israeli prime minister is said to believe is the best man to replace him for the top job. Netanyahu is said to have met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

A recent interview given by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, and the sudden popping up of Pakistani TV anchors on Israeli new television to drumbeat possibilities of a new beginning, have been read around the world as signs that not only is there enough pressure on Pakistan both from Saudi Arabia, on whose financial benevolence Pakistan has long survived, and the US, but also the Pakistani military, always the real home of power in Pakistan.

As startling as these developments are, there is an air of inevitability in them. The truth is the Pakistani government is in no position to refuse such pressures, no matter the ideological dissonance. As Pakistan’s most renowned economist, Atif Mian at Princeton University, wrote recently, “Pakistan’s federal government is effectively bankrupt.” The whole country, including the military, is running on money borrowed from various sources including the International Monetary Fund, Saudi Arabia, and China.

Saudi Arabia, which worries about growing ties between Turkey and Iran, its implacable foes, is at the forefront of the shifting sands in the deserts of the Gulf. If its conflict with Turkey stems from old Wahhabi-Ottoman hostilities (the control of Islam’s holiest sites, for instance, used to be with the Ottoman caliphs until they came under the House of Saud), then the battle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, some would say, never ended since the Battle of Karbala. A peace deal with Israel secures the House of Saud with the promise of technology, both civilian and military, and support for an effective transition to a non-fossil fuel driven world.

For Saudi Arabia, a historic peace deal with Israel has many benefits. Israel promises technology and know-how that could help Saudi Arabia effect its grand plan to move away from being dependent mainly on oil revenues, and steer international memory away from the disrepute acquire due to the Khashoggi affair where a senior journalist was murdered within the Saudi embassy in Turkey. Normal relations with Israel would give Saudi Arabia a tremendous reputational boost and would allow MBS, as Salman is often called, to promote the idea that he is ushering in a new, relatively progressive, dawn in the kingdom. Peace with Israel, with the full benefit of both the military expertise of the country, and even deeper ties with America, for it, secures the future of the rulers of Saudi Arabia like few other things can. It would be a leverage against both Iran and Turkey.

Also, with Saudi Arabia building more intricate nuclear ties with China, the only effective leverage that Pakistan had with the Saudis, as the keeper of the ‘Muslim bomb’, a reference to Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities, may now have only, at best, a limited use.

For America, the other country whose pressure Pakistan is susceptible to, such a deal would be advantageous to the outgoing Trump administration as its definitive legacy to the influential Jewish community in America. Some in the Imran Khan government may feel that the incoming Biden administration might think differently, but one look at enduring ties that both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have with the Israel cause are enough to suggest that while rhetoric might change, the fundamentals of policy are unlikely to alter from Trump to Biden.

Ever since Khan’s failure to drum-up enough international support, even from influential Muslim countries of the Gulf and its own benefactors, for the Kashmir cause after the Indian parliament voted unanimously to bring in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir wholly within the ambit of the Indian constitution without any special provisions, his government has seemed increasingly beleaguered. Widely seen as supported by the Pakistani army, Khan today faces a united opposition which is targeting him but also, in a move very rare in Pakistan, openly the military establishment.

The Pakistani military too needs a dramatic shift in status quo. Even though it created, and controls, the violent Islamists and jihadists which it has consistently directed towards India, increasingly it is the Pakistani state and the military that are under attack from such elements. The military has had to fight an almost unending war against the Al Qaeda-linked Tehreek-i-Taliban in Pakistan, and more recently another radical group, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, shut down the capital Islamabad demanding that Pakistan cuts all ties with France after the French government’s tough stand in supporting freedom of speech in the creation of imagery or text that is considered blasphemous by many Muslims. This has particularly flared up after the beheading of a schoolteacher in Paris by an Islamist assailant in October 2020. France, which is a major trading partner of Pakistan, and the source of many-a military equipment has already refused further upgrades on its weaponry. All this is bad news for the Pakistani military especially since French military trade and ties are at perhaps their strongest ever with India. India’s purchase of its new generation of fighter jets, the Rafale, from France is just one example of these deepening ties. It has been widely reported that the deal clincher for the Rafale was that the French had no objection for the jet to be modified to carry nuclear payloads and become part of India’s nuclear triad.

A deal with Israel gives the Pakistani army some breathing space. If it succeeds, the military will undoubtedly benefit, if it fails (i.e., if there are mass protests on it in Pakistan), Khan and his government will take the blame. The only country which can stop such a deal by putting pressure on Pakistan is China but it has no reason to.

Therefore, it may only be a matter of time before the Pakistani government is arm twisted to start dealing with Israel. Never mind what Jinnah said, and irrespective of any settlement to the Palestinian issue.

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