Pakistan-Israel Relations: A New Beginning?

26 Oct, 2005    ·   1873

Beryl Anand analyses the thaw in Pakistan-Israel relations and opines that expediency eludes legitimacy in this relationship

The 1 September meeting between Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and his Pakistani counterpart Khurshid Mahmoud Kasuri - described by many observers as historic - was carved out of secret efforts by the pro-Islamic and pro-American Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to help diffuse tensions in West Asia. But clandestine relations did exist between the two countries even as Pakistan, like most other Islamic countries, had adopted a pro-Palestinian posture against Israel. Indirect relations between Pakistan's military establishment and Israel date back to the 1980s and are well documented. Over the last couple of years, President Musharraf has repeatedly attempted to bring these contacts into the public sphere. In 2003, he stressed the need for better relations with Israel during his visit to Camp David. But his comments were quickly brushed under the carpet when it drew an adverse reaction in Pakistan. In July 2003, President Musharraf called for a national debate on the possibility of opening diplomatic ties with Israel. The same year, Musharraf declared in the UN General Assembly that Pakistan 'recognized the right of Israel to exist'.

For decades, Pakistan has adopted a pro-Palestinian rhetoric coupled with an aversion for the Jewish state. This significant move by Pakistan has come as good news for Israel, which is looking for friends in the Islamic world. It is interesting to note that Israel has full diplomatic ties with only four Islamic nations - Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Mauritania. However, it has good relations with Albania, Azerbaijan, Gambia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Afghanistan is another Islamic country that has indicated its willingness to recognize Israel. At this point, the space created by Musharraf to accommodate Israel merits a discussion.

A key factor propelling the present Pakistani leadership is the country's revamped Pakistani foreign policy. The four pillars newly identified in Pakistan are Afghanistan, Kashmir, 'Look East' policy and opening up with Israel. Pakistan is willing to access high-technology military systems directly or indirectly from Israeli industries. Earlier, Pakistan's Islamic bomb created apprehensions about its security in Israel and Pakistan feared pre-emptive strikes against its nuclear installations, similar to the one Israel carried out on Iraq's Osiraq reactor.

The second reason relates to the growing strategic relationship between India and Israel. It is a well-known fact that Israel has become a major arms supplier to India. Israel is also trying to clinch deals for high-tech defence products and cutting-edge technologies with India. A $1.3 billion agreement over the Phalcon early warning system, Israel's expertise in counter-insurgency tactics and fencing along the LoC are some of the recent, but important developments. Recently, India has also expressed interest in procuring the 'Arrow' - a missile defence system against ballistic missiles.

The third reason is Israel's move to vacate the Gaza Strip. Pakistan had previously indicated that vacating Palestinian territories were an important prerequisite and diplomatic recognition of Israel would depend on the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. The Pakistani President had said that steps taken by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to vacate Israeli settlements in Gaza and some settlements in West Bank had helped improve Israel-Pakistan relations. However, the sudden public embrace of Israel by the world's second largest Muslim nation worried Palestinians, who warned that 'any prize for Israel is premature as long as it controls Gaza's borders, expands West Bank settlements and tightens its hold on Jerusalem'.

The fourth reason is the Iran factor. Interestingly, while Israel sees Iran as an immediate threat, as the Islamic regime has openly threatened destruction of the Jewish state, no such animosity exists towards Pakistan. 'Major developments such as India-US defence agreement and the Pakistan-Israel friendly overtures may sober Iran to react pragmatically and it may relinquish its belligerency in favour of a policy of mutual accommodation. This will be welcomed by Pakistan as a close Islamic neighbour.'

The Istanbul meeting has drawn condemnation from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and from some religious parties in Pakistan. The Opposition reacted strongly against this move and the MMA President Qazi Hussain Ahmed led a massive protest in Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province.

However, the recent earthquake in Pakistan generated a quick assistance from Israel and Pakistan was grateful in acknowledging it. This is an indication of the blossoming relations between the two countries. While Pakistan's declared new policy towards Israel has yet to develop, its immediate effect may well be a signal to new strategic equations in Southern Asia.