Over the last few weeks, the debate over recognizing Israel has picked up in Pakistan. The debate is not necessarily news, but this is perhaps the first time we’ve gotten a deeper look at the degree of contact between the two countries.
The first question that comes to mind is why has the debate picked up now? Prime Minister Imran Khan and other senior government officials have denied on several occasions that Pakistan is planning on establishing ties with Israel. In one recent interview, Khan explicitly said that the United States and other countries have ramped up pressure on Pakistan following Israel’s deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
When questioned if Muslim countries were among those applying pressure on Pakistan, Khan said: “There are things we cannot say. We have good relations with them.”
“I have no second thought about recognizing Israel unless there is a just settlement, which satisfies Palestine,” he added.
It is possible that Pakistan may have come under pressure from countries like Saudi Arabia, its allies in the Gulf region, and the United States to establish diplomatic ties with Israel.
“Riyadh has been arm-twisting Islamabad for months, because Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants to ‘normalize normalization,’ before Saudi Arabia makes a formal move towards Israel,” an article published in Haartz claimed, citing Pakistani government sources.
While Pakistan has been quick to reject any such claims publicly, new evidence suggests that it may have been Islamabad that is eager to normalize ties rather than the other way around. Put bluntly, Israel never had a problem with establishing a working relationship with Pakistan. It is Pakistan that has never been able to decide whether it wants to be friends with Israel or oppose it under an illusory policy of protecting the Muslim ummah’s global interests. The question of Israel presents Pakistan’s foreign policy with a dilemma: Islamabad is not clear if it wants Islam in its foreign policy or a foreign policy that is formulated more realistically to achieve national objectives in the international environment.
What is unfortunate is that Pakistan has stabbed itself in the foot by assuming, for decades, that the Saudis and their Arab affiliates would love to hate Israel forever. Pakistan’s leaders should have understood after the partition that foreign governments, including majority Muslim countries, were not interested in its so-called efforts to unite the Muslim ummah or project itself as the leader of it. Pakistan’s so-called championship of the cause of the Muslim world annoyed many Muslim countries with much stronger historical and civilizational roots. The situation is best explained by a joke made by Egypt’s King Farooq: “Don’t you know that the Islam was born on 14 August 1947,” he said, pointing to Pakistan’s founding and its leaders’ efforts to centralize their role as defenders of the Muslim world’s interests.
The Pakistani leadership, for decades, normalized hatred against the Jewish state through its Islamization efforts domestically. Meanwhile, the country’s leaders have covertly dealt with Israel and also sent and perhaps received delegations to explore options to normalize ties.
Recently, a leader of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Ajmal Qadri, claimed that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had sent a delegation of Muslim scholars, including him, to Israel.
“I found him [Nawaz] very passionate to develop a relationship with the Jewish state but domestic politics prevented him from moving ahead on the issue,” said Qadri in an interview. He further added that after concluding the Israel tour, his advice to Nawaz Sharif was that “Pakistan’s parliament should be consulted or national dialogue be held to take a decision in this regard” with a view that he himself didn’t oppose recognizing Israel.
A few days ago, another prominent religious leader and member of the JUI-F Muhammad Khan Sherani said that he supports the normalization of ties with Israel. “This is an international issue, I support recognition of Israel,” Sherani said. “Educated Muslims need to understand that the Quran and history prove to us that the Land of Israel belongs only to the Jews. King David built the house of God in Jerusalem for the Israelis and not for the Palestinians.”
At this point, it is unclear whether Pakistan’s current civil-military leadership has realized the bizarre nature of the country’s foreign policy choices and is making efforts to shape public opinion to prepare for the normalization of ties with Israel in the long run. What is clear is that part of these revelations on covert ties with and acceptance of Israel has come from people who are part of the opposition’s alliance against the government. On Friday, the head of the JUI-F, Fazlur Rehman, who also leads the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), expelled Sherani from the party for expressing support for Israel’s recognition. The revelation of Ajmal Qadri, who was also a leader of Rehman’s party, placed the responsibility of the visit to Israel on Nawaz Sharif, who has been storming the civil-military leadership with his speeches for more months now.
It appears that Pakistan’s current leadership is looking to score two kills with the recent revelations on covert ties with Israel. First, revelations on secret visits to Israel during the Sharif administration harms Sharif and Rehman’s legitimacy in assailing the government for exploring options to normalize ties with Israel. Second, for the civil-military leadership, it achieves the very purpose of testing public opinion for such an eventuality in the long run.
More exciting times are ahead for Pakistan and Israel’s secret bilateral relationship.