Observations of an expat: Pakistan – next to recognise Israel?

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Wafting through the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and across the parade ground of military headquarters in Rawalpindi is an interesting political rumour: Will Pakistan be the next Islamic country to recognise Israel?

If it does it will not be so much a feather in the Israeli-American cap as a full-sized Native American war bonnet. Only Saudi recognition would beat it as a diplomatic coup.

But is the rumour likely to become a reality? Diplomats say that such a move is possible. But set against the brick wall of political realities it is highly improbable.

For a start, the political, social, economic and cultural conditions in Pakistan are completely different from those in the countries that have recently recognised Israel—Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan. The UAE is an extremely wealthy states ruled by absolute monarchs. Their largely pliant population is happy to stay out of politics as long as the oil money keeps rolling in. Bahrain is not enormously wealthy, and its population is divided between Sunnis and Shias. But the ruler is an absolute monarch and in lock step with the UAE.

Sudan is not so wealthy. But its diplomatic position has been bought by Washington. As one of the centres of Islamic terrorism, it languished for years on America’s economic blacklist. US aid and investment is now pouring in.

Pakistan, in comparison is poor and its politics are Byzantine. The per capita income of the 212.7 million Pakistanis is below that of Sudan at $1,357 a year. They are 154th in the world wealth stakes.

Prime Minister Imran Khan is a perfectly competent and charming man, but he is politically circumscribed. The real power in Pakistan is the military—the sixth largest in the world. The prime minister is allowed to operate freely, but only within parameters established by the military, especially the army. If he steps outside the parameters than he runs the risk of removal—even a military coup.

The army would probably support recognition of Israel if it was persuaded that such a move was in the national interest. Like most militaries, they are driven more by practical than ideological concerns. But that same pragmatism means the army has to take account of domestic Muslim sensibilities which for decades have been fed a diet of anti-Israeli propaganda through the madrassah and religious parties such as the JUP and JUI.

Set against that is the influence of 1.5 million Pakistani expatriates in the UAE, who remit more than $1 billion a year back to the home country. If they are seen as supportive of the UAE’s foreign policy then they will make their feelings known back home. The Pakistani diaspora in the UAE is the world’s third largest after the UK and Saudi Arabia.

Then there are the international considerations, starting with Saudi Arabia. In 2019, The Saudis provided $20 billion in aid to Pakistan. Rumours of Saudi recognition of Israel have been even thicker and faster than those involving in Pakistan.  But to date, Saudi Arabia appears to be using proxies rather than raising its head above the diplomatic parapet. Pakistan could be one of those proxies.

The US is Pakistan’s biggest supplier of military equipment (China is second), but America and Pakistan have suffered a roller coaster relationship under both the Obama and Trump Administrations as distrust grew between Washington and Islamabad over differing positions on Afghanistan and the Islamic Jihad.

On top of that, Donald Trump invested considerable political capital in relations with Pakistan arch-enemy India. He and prime minister Narenda Modi shared a right-wing populist agenda. In addition the two had the common objective of an Asian NATO to militarily contain China. Its key members would be the US, India, Japan and Australia. This clearly caused concern in Pakistan.

The position of the Biden Administration on the Middle East, South Asia, China, and Pakistan has yet to be clarified.  Biden has said he wants revive the Iran Nuclear Accord which should reduce the need for a regional military build-up and joined-at-the-hip diplomatic relations with the Gulf States.  Trump’s Middle East policy abandoned the two-state Palestinian solution. If Biden revives it then the need for diplomatic Islamic recognition of Israel recedes.  As for the Asian NATO, Biden appears more inclined towards restoring Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership than Trump’s military-based option.  Indian-US relations are likely to be remain cordial, but not nearly as warm as the personal chemistry that developed between Donald Trump and Narendra Modi.

So are the rumours true? Unlikely, but never say never.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain” that has sold out in the US after six weeks but is still available in the UK.

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  • Denis Mollison 5th Dec '20 - 2:49pm

    This seems a very oblique take on the Israel-Palestine problem, with references to the “need for diplomatic Islamic recognition of Israel”; what do you mean by that?
    And you refer to the US reviving the two-state solution: better than Trump’s policy possibly, but flogging a dead horse.

  • I don’t think I actually said that there is a “need” for Arab diplomatic recognition of Israel, or even implied it. But having said that, as a general rule of thumb anything that encourages jaw jaw is intrinsically good in diplomatic terms.

    As for the two state solution, that is the position of the UN, HMG and the EU. The reason for that is because anything short of an agreement which recognises Palestinian rights will leave a dangerously disenfranchised national group in a volatile region of the world.

    As for the obliqueness of the story. A number of Pakistanis would disagree with you. They have been out demonstrating on the streets of Islamabad and Karachi against recognition of Israel.

  • I’m no expert on Pakistani politics, but while I’d go along with the contributors’s line, to paraphrase, that Pakistan is more about being an Army with a large country, rather than a country with a large army, I’d disagree with his notion that while Imran Khan might consider Pakistani recognition of Israel, the army would be more resistant.
    I’d say it would be the reverse- Imran Khan is probably less concerned with answering any US administration and more conscious of the need to address internal matters within Pakistan, given the decades of neglect in civic infrastructure to improve life for its poor than most of Pakistan’s ineffectual political leadership – who only seemed to serve the army or its wealthy elite, ever since the untimely death of Jinnah.
    The Pakistani army, on the other hand, had throughout most of the cold war been the beneficiary of most US administrations, more recently filtered through the House of Saud with its….’mixed’ goals.
    On the House of Saud: Well , it’s been very close to the Israelis for many years. While on the surface, one is a ‘western style democracy’, and the other a western-friendly client autocracy with pretensions of being the muslim equivalent of the Vatican, they share a mutual interest in defining their rule by disenfranchising rights of millions and substantial % of peoples effectively under their rule who hold an identity that the political leadership in both states views as an existential threat (Israeli Arabs and Palestinians of the Occupied Territories, and the c.30% Shiah Saudis) . So Saudi Arabia and Israel have been on the same page at least with regards to Iran, the Lebanon, Egypt Syria etc., so much that Saudi recognition would be of no more added value but potentially much greater risk of destabilising the House of Saud- which Israel understands, and doesn’t want to harm.
    But where SA has influence, like with the minority Sunni Bahraini rulers or UAE, and to a lesser extent the Pakistani army, it’ll encourage recognition of Israel with those undemocratic leaderships as long as it’s about cementing an alliance against Shiah power.

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