After the United Arab Emirates announced it was pursuing full bilateral relations with Israel, Bahrain and Sudan followed suit, while Morocco and Oman may be the next dominoes to fall. But one country is likely to buck this trend, despite its allies’ wishes to the contrary: Pakistan.
Last month, Prime Minister Imran Khan stated that he was facing pressure from foreign leaders to recognize Israel. But while Pakistan is not at war with the Jewish state, normalization will remain elusive, given Pakistan’s ideological equating of the Palestinian struggle with its own efforts to liberate Kashmir, the political costs of establishing ties with Israel, and Islamabad’s deepening linkage with Iran.
Pakistan has long had covert intelligence relations with Israel, like the UAE and other Gulf states. Former President General Zia ul Haq opened a backchannel between Israel’s Mossad and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate in the 1970s, and the two agencies cooperated in the 1980s, working with the U.S. against the Soviets in Afghanistan. In 2005, during the presidency of General Pervez Musharraf, Turkey midwifed the first-ever public official contact between Israel and Pakistan, a meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers in Istanbul. Last year, Musharraf reiterated his call for normalization with Israel, suggesting that bilateral ties could serve as a counterweight to India.
What stands in the way of normalization is Islamabad’s long record of equating the Palestinian struggle for self-determination to the same struggle in Indian-controlled parts of Kashmir. To normalize ties with Israel before resolving the Palestinian issue would rob Pakistan of the justifications it has used to bolster its claims over Kashmir. Earlier this month, Khan said that serious consideration of bilateral ties with Israel would have to wait for “a just settlement, which satisfies Palestinians.”
Khan has even gone so far as to call the Gulf states’ deals with Israel “pointless,” claiming that Pakistan cannot decide “on a matter that has been rejected by its owners, the Palestinian people.” The pervasive feeling in Islamabad is that the Gulf countries have abandoned their traditional support for pan-Islamic causes, like Kashmir and Palestine, leaving Pakistan to take up the mantle of championing Muslim voices – a role Islamabad is happy to play.
Khan has doubled down on the Kashmir issue in particular after coming under pressure from both his political opponents and the Pakistani army for not being more vocal about the revocation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which granted Kashmir autonomous status within India. At the United Nations General Assembly last year, Khan warned of a “blood bath in Kashmir” once India lifted its lockdown. In August, Khan’s government introduced a new map redefining Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir as “Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir.” Against this backdrop, any outreach toward Israel would be seen as hypocritical and give ammunition to Pakistan’s influential hardline Islamists.
The political costs of normalization are quite high for Islamabad. Khan would face the opprobrium of a considerable portion of the public, including his own supporters – thereby delivering a major blow to his reputation. There could also be violent protests and other reactions from Islamist hardliners that would have the potential to metastasize into major security threats. After all, street protests against Israel are not uncommon: thousands protested the UAE’s deal with Israel, and Quds Day gatherings occur annually. The Pakistani military, which would have to sign off on a formal recognition of Israel, would have much to lose from the heightened security risks that a public backlash would engender. While the army is signaling that it is open to normalization, the groundwork has not yet been laid for it. Moreover, the army could face reputational risks, as the Islamist actors that it has used as assets in certain conflicts would be outraged over a move to normalize ties with Israel. The public reaction to any deal with Israel would severely undermine Khan’s position and give ammunition to the mullahs – something the establishment is eager to avoid, given the power and influence that hardline Islamist perspectives continue to wield in Pakistan.
A third obstacle in the way of Islamabad-Jerusalem ties is Pakistan’s relationship with Iran, which appears to be intensifying despite earnest efforts by the Gulf Arab states to peel Pakistan away. There are millennia of shared culture and history between Pakistan and Iran, but recent geopolitical jostling matters just as much: Saudi Arabia has growing ties with India and was reluctant to speak about the Article 370 issue for fear of antagonizing New Delhi. Pakistan is still keen on maintaining relations with the Saudi kingdom, but likely feels that its traditional allies – including the United States – are tilting toward India. Any recognition of Israel would mean Pakistan has chosen the Gulf Arab states over Iran, but Pakistan prefers not to choose at all – particularly when Iran has backed Pakistani claims on Kashmir, unlike Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the Khan government recognizes that the rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran could have potentially destabilizing consequences for Pakistan, given its border with Iran and large Shia minority, and Khan has actively sought to mediate between the two to prevent Pakistan from being forced to choose.
That has not stopped Pakistan from venting its anger with Riyadh. Islamabad demanded in August that the kingdom “show leadership” on Kashmir and wanted Saudi Arabia to call a special meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister, even stated that if Riyadh did not call a special session, Pakistan would have to go to other Muslim countries – Malaysia, Iran, and Turkey – that supported Pakistan more strongly.
Turkey already wields enormous soft power in Pakistan. Moreover, Istanbul was one of the most vociferous defenders of Pakistan at the recent Financial Action Task Force meeting; at the U.N. General Assembly this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised the Kashmir issue, to Pakistan’s delight. If Pakistan continues to grow closer to both Iran and Turkey, and maintains its support for Turkey’s bid to supplant Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Islamic bloc, then Pakistan could further harden its stance against normalization with Israel.
Still, the door to improved Israel-Pakistan relations remains slightly ajar. Washington could encourage intelligence and military cooperation between the two, while nudging Pakistan to take other gradual steps toward Israel consistent with its domestic political constraints. One possibility is for Pakistan and Israel to strike a small trade deal or enter into a modest investment partnership that addresses both countries’ key needs and markets, such as Israel selling water technology to help Pakistan’s agriculture sector, or Pakistan beginning to export textiles products to Israel. Such an approach would also allow the Gulf states to play a helpful role if they wish to do so. Given Pakistan’s stressed foreign exchange reserves and high debt burden, Saudi Arabia or the UAE could incentivize gestures toward Israel by forgiving the money Pakistan owes to them, or agreeing to rollover the existing debt, which Pakistan has requested.
The wave of normalization deals sweeping the Arab world shows how fruitless orthodoxies can make way for people-to-people ties and a warm peace. But not all the dominoes will fall so easily. Pakistan’s example reminds us that even amidst all the excitement there are still instances where we must curb our enthusiasm.
Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she focuses on the Persian Gulf. Follow her on Twitter @varshakoduvayur. Akhil Bery is an analyst at the Eurasia Group, where he focuses on South Asia. Follow him @AkhilBery.