Activists of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) march in a protest rally against the agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to normalize diplomatic relations, in Rawalpindi on August 16, 2020. (hoto: AFP / Farooq Naeem

The Jewish settlement in the heart of the Middle East has long positioned itself as a huge cause of discord among the Muslim bloc. Inviting open confrontations with Tel Aviv as well as proxy wars, the Palestine-Israel conflict has divided not only regional countries but the Muslim bloc overall.

For decades Palestine’s cause remained high on the agenda of Muslim countries, notable exceptions being Egypt and Turkey. (Interestingly, Iran had also established ties with Tel Aviv in 1950 but revoked its decision when the religious leader Khomeini claimed power.)  

While this has been the case in the past, the recent wave of recognizing Israel by prominent Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa has sparked a new debate. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain established formal ties with Tel Aviv. It apparently came as an independent move, but without the tacit approval of Saudi Arabia such a bold decision is hard to imagine.    

There has been speculation that Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu met with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman. Rumors of other formal and informal meetings with Israeli officials are also rife. The Saudi Kingdom officially denied any such meeting but such a possibility cannot be ruled out.   

With Bahrain and UAE recognizing Israel, Islamabad must decide whether to follow suit.

Pakistan’s official stance

Pakistani Prime Minster Imran Khan long denied there was any possibility of recognizing Tel Aviv, but in a recent interview with London-based Middle East Eye he stated that his government is under immense pressure to establish formal ties with the Jewish state. Responding to a question whether any Muslim state is contributing to that pressure he chose to be diplomatic by replying, “We cannot say such things. We have good relations with them.”

Besides tact and diplomacy, what is barring Islamabad from formalizing relations with Israel?

Further explaining his country’s official stance, Khan clearly stated that it’s the lack of a “just settlement” of the Palestine cause that restrains Pakistan from recognizing Tel Aviv. His explanation falls in line with the policies of previous governments: Pakistan has no direct enmity with Israel but it cannot compromise on the rights of Palestinians. Standing in solidarity with the Muslim countries and carrying the flag of the wellbeing of the Muslim world are major drivers behind Pakistan’s stringent policy.

The most important factor that Islamabad and its policy-makers link with the Israel-Palestine conflict is the Kashmir issue. Islamabad’s Foreign Office and its diplomatic machinery substantiate their stance on Kashmir by relating it to (even if only remotely) similar elsewhereissues.

The decision to side with Azerbaijan in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh was in concurrence with the aforementioned policy.

It’s debateable to what extent Pakistan has been successful in defending the cause of Kashmir. Following India’s August 5, 2019, move to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, the viability of this policy is also a matter of introspection.

3-pronged smart bargaining

Accept it or not, rationality drives international relations to stability and durability. Sentiments and wishful thinking do the opposite. What has Pakistan achieved, so far, by not recognizing Israel? To what extent if any it has done any good for the Palestine cause also needs serious consideration.

Out of 193 member countries of the UN, 164 have already recognized Israel and enjoy friendly relations with it. With influential and prominent Muslim countries reported to be in the process of establishing ties with Israel, Pakistan must decide how to make the most of this developing situation.

It is possible for Pakistan to move forward with formalizing ties with Tel Aviv while not compromising its official moral stance on Palestine cause. A three-pronged approach can facilitate doing so:

  • Ask for a just settlement of the Palestine issue.
  • Align with those Muslim states that are not recognizing Israel and demand a just settlement of the Palestine cause in return for establishing diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv.
  • Ask those who are pressuring Pakistan, whether the US or any Muslim country, for practical assistance on the Kashmir issue.

With the art of smart bargaining, this might prove an opportune moment for Pakistan.  

However, before engaging in any meaningful discussion with international stakeholders on this issue, some sensitivities should be taken into account. Firstly, there is no denying that public opinion in Pakistan is against formalizing ties with Israel. Therefore, any negotiation must be made public and transparent.

There must not be any closed-door decisions on this matter. From influential religious scholars to the intelligentsia, the relevant government organs need to initiate a general debate weighing the pros and cons of recognizing Israel while not compromising on the Palestine cause.

If it’s done smartly, Pakistan can reap the benefits of rationality. If it’s done carelessly, the country may end up stirring furrther chaos with religious seminaries.

Above all, let’s hypothesize a scenario in which Pakistan is pressured to recognize Israel and ends up doing so reluctantly. What it will gain? Of course, not much.

In an different, smarter scenario, however, it can raise its bargaining position and might secure some chips on Palestine and, most importantly, on the Kashmir issue. Would not that place Pakistan in a better position vis-à-vis its arch rival, India, which is on friendly terms with Israel?

Ghazanfar Ali Garewal

Ghazanfar Ali Garewal is Lecturer in International Relations department of the National University of Modern Languages in Islamabad (NUML). He holds an MS degree in International Cooperation from Yonsei University, Seoul, an MSc in international relations from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and an MA in English from NUML.

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