Brace for Pakistan-Israel ties

Changing Geopolitics
Last Updated 14 December 2019, 05:03 IST

While acknowledging discussions over the establishment of Pakistan-Israel diplomatic relations, Pakistan spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor some weeks ago quashed rumours that this would actually happen in November 2019. Pakistani journalist Kunwar Khuldune Shahid wrote about the country’s diplomatic-military decision-makers considering the need for ties with Israel in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on September 3, 2019, which marked 14 years of the first official meeting between the two states. On 1 September 2005, the then Pakistan and Israel foreign ministers Khurshid Kasuri and Silvan Shalom met in Istanbul. Former president Pervez Musharraf had orchestrated the rendezvous to end decades of diplomatic stalemate between the two countries. However, nothing concrete materialised between them. Rumours surface from time to time, but the two states continue to maintain diplomatic silence. But their story is not as bland.

Pakistan lacks a direct conflict with Israel but has never established open diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. Pakistan does not officially recognise the state of Israel, and its green-coloured passport clearly mentions “for all the countries except Israel”. Islamabad has repeatedly reiterated its position against Israel in the UN and other international fora. However, their bilateral silence cannot be equated with absence of ties. Their diplomats have interacted with each other in foreign capitals for several decades since the early 1950s. According to Professor PR Kumaraswamy, a West Asia specialist, “Influential Jewish leaders like Edmund de Rothschild have privately operated, and at times funded efforts to further Pakistan-Israel normalisation.” And there are signs of change. There is an emerging feeling in Islamabad that since its Arab allies have diplomatically engaged with Israel, they too could do so.

In the late 1970s, the legendary Israeli leader General Moshe Dayan had reportedly interacted with Indian representatives in Kathmandu, besides meeting with then Prime Minister Morarji Desai in New Delhi. Islamabad believed Dayan’s visit was linked to a prospective covert joint operation by India and Israel to attack Pakistan’s nuclear programme. With its aerial attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, Israel acquired aggressive credentials and this continued to fuel Pakistan’s fears about the vulnerability of its nuclear installation at Kahuta.

The late Pakistani President Zia-ul Haq decided to reassure Israel that the Pakistani nuclear programme would not threaten its national interests as the US had close relations with both Pakistan and Israel. Washington is supposed to have aided initial contacts between these two states created on the basis of religion. In a sense, Israel was confident that the US would not allow Pakistan’s nuclear capability to threaten Israel. Perhaps this explains the Israeli position that abstains from any reference to Pakistan in the context of pre-emptive strikes against the nuclear programmes of Iraq, Iran and Libya. As a result, President Zia opted for a back-channel between the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate and Israel’s Mossad through their officers attached to their embassies in Washington DC.

In the 1980s, Pakistan assisted the US in its guerilla war against the erstwhile Soviet forces in Afghanistan, bringing together the ISI and Mossad in this covert war. Cold War politics brought the two aloof states on the same side. For instance, when an Indian Army officer from the hush-hush ‘Establishment 22’ was sent to Tel Aviv for a commercially-run counter-hijack course in the early 1980s, he found a Pakistan Army officer also training there with him. Clearly, it suggested a covert cooperative arrangement between Pakistan and Israel. Equally interesting was Dan Kiesel’s presence in Pakistan as a sports psychotherapist for the Pakistan Cricket Board in the early 1990s. As a German passport-holder, his initial tenure in Pakistan was easy. However, his identity as an Israel-born Jewish person eventually became a sensitive subject in Pakistan’s Senate and his tenure ended prematurely.

Pakistan’s obsession with religion and paranoia over an India-Israel-US nexus makes this alliance a political suicide domestically – a risk no political party in Pakistan has been willing to take. For a long time, the Iran factor and Pakistan’s fraternal ties with the Arab world, specifically its most important ally Saudi Arabia, curtailed Pakistan from considering any positive change in its Israel policy.

Considering that the Arab world and Iran championed the Palestinian cause and anti-Israel rhetoric, it further constrained Islamabad from developing ties with Tel Aviv. However, over the years, anti-Iran sentiment overtook anti-Israel sentiment, and the Gulf countries gravitated toward Israel on account of common enmity with Iran. This opened a window of opportunity for Pakistan to reconsider its Israel policy. Even the late Benazir Bhutto had articulated an interest to normalise Pakistan’s ties with Israel during her election campaign in 2007. Importantly, there are unconfirmed reports about Israel’s interest to sell military technologies to Pakistan in 2010. Several Pakistani scholars have expressed similar opinions in newspaper articles – that Pakistan would benefit from an alliance with Israel. However, the Jewish state remains a heartache for the average Muslim in the Islamic republic.

In October 2018, when rumours of an Israeli jet landing at Rawalpindi surfaced in the media, it created an uproar in Pakistan. Similar outrage was witnessed when Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, in an interview, expressed an interest to normalise ties with Israel on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in February 2019. When questioned back home, he was quick to deny the same. The writing on the wall has always been hazy and unclear, and the topic of Pakistan-Israel relations remains clouded with uncertainty. But with the Arab world’s geopolitical gravitation towards Israel, it might be feasible for Islamabad to legitimise its foreign policy gambit in the wider perspective of its policy toward the Arab countries. Thus, New Delhi might have to brace for hyphenation of Pakistan and Israel ties in the near future, much to its discomfort.

(Chengappa teaches International Relations and Strategic Studies at the Christ Deemed to be University, Bengaluru; Divya is a PhD candidate at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

(Published 13 December 2019, 17:45 IST)

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