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Imran Khan and Israel

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo. Aamir Qureshi—AFP

With allied Gulf states lining up to recognize the Jewish state, Pakistan’s principled stance could require greater flexibility

In September 2020, Prime Minister Imran Khan told the people of Pakistan—through a wide-ranging interview with TV host Kamran Khan—that he would never recognize Israel as the U.A.E. has done recently “because the founder of Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had refused to consider recognizing Israel as long as the Palestinians were not given back their land occupied by Israel.”

His remarks were well received because most Pakistanis believe the same way about Israel, i.e. it is an artificial state created by force to subjugate the Palestinian Muslims.

However, now that the “Islamic phalanx” of Arab states confronting Israel has collapsed after their recognition of the Jewish state, Pakistan is in a quandary. Prime Minister Khan has set Pakistan apart from Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, India and Sudan with this “conditionality.” The Arabs once used to be at the forefront of the support the subjugated Palestinians enjoyed in the world.

The Palestinians of Israel were once led by Yasser Arafat’s organization Al Fatah. Today they are divided between Hamas of Gaza and Al Fatah of West Bank, the split happening in 2007, with efforts at “unification” to-date yielding no results. The Palestinians are divided over the Arab recognition of Israel, but opinion in the Islamic world is in the process of formulation: will the Palestinians gain with Arab recognition or come under more repression? Will Israel “relent” in the face of a phalanx of Arab ambassadors sitting in Tel Aviv and supporting the Palestinians? Or will the lessening of Israel-Arab tension help them? The policy of non-recognition has not helped; and today, as the Muslim states find themselves arrayed against one another, it looks more and more absurd.

Clearly, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. feel threatened themselves, not so much by Israel, as by Turkey and Iran, the two states themselves at odds in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Turkey is a big military state and can match any military power in the region because of its membership of the European military alliance NATO. It is threatening the Arabs in Libya, and Egypt in eastern Mediterranean. In recent times, Turkey has tried to set up an Islamic Summit conference opposed to Saudi Arabia with the help of Pakistan and Malaysia. Pakistan perhaps did not realize—despite the “expertise” available to it from its Foreign Office—that it would lead to a break with its Arab friends. Malaysia ducked out of it by firing its prime minister and retained its financially “useful” relations with Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. while Pakistan remains in a diplomatic limbo.

Pakistan was always hazy about Israel, basing its view on “hatred of the cursed Jew.” Some Pakistanis are in the habit of saying that Pakistan and Israel are the only two states that came into being in the name of religion. This kind of “analysis” is not based on facts. In so far as the Pakistan Movement in British India and Zionism in Europe were born in a secular environment, the comparison between Zionist founder Theodor Herzl and the founder of Pakistan Quaid-e-Azam Mohamed Ali Jinnah is however valid. But it should be kept in mind that Herzl was rejected by the rabbis of Europe and Russia; and so was Jinnah by the religious parties of India. One can put it better like this: if Jinnah created Pakistan for Muslims of India, then his struggle is comparable to Herzl’s Zionist struggle for the creation of a homeland for the Jews. Today, Pakistan has an “Islamic” constitution; Israel doesn’t have a constitution.

Did Pakistan always think like Imran Khan today? It seems that it never got around to actually taking the matter to public debate. It is proved again and again in international affairs that any rigidity in foreign policy leads to “disadvantage through inability to make timely decisions.” There are, however, interesting moments when Pakistan was inclined to be non-dogmatic but could not manage to complete the process of reform of its “principled” foreign policy.

Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, a former foreign minister of Pakistan (November 2002 to November 2007) writes in his memoir Neither a Hawk nor a Dove: “I met Silvan Shalom, then Israel Deputy Prime Minister and its Foreign Minister, in a most dramatic manner. In order to preserve the secrecy of the mission, I flew in a special Lear Jet 60 from Malta, where I had gone for a bilateral dialogue, accompanied by Director General Foreign Minister’s Office, Khalid Mahmood. Even he did not know until last moment about our destination until I told him about our planned trip for a meeting in Istanbul. While this visit was being planned, as an elected representative of the people, I was aware that this was a politically hazardous move. I knew instinctively that the religious and rightwing political circles would try and derive maximum political benefit and criticize the decision. It was, however, decided at the highest level that Pakistan’s national interest demanded that we go ahead with the decision (to recognize Israel?)”.

Today Pakistan is still inflexible in its foreign policy in the face of India’s much more adept handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As a “religious state,” it still thinks in religious terms. Already the much more “realistic” Arabs have “adjusted” to Turkish and Iranian threat by joining Israel. Whether Pakistan likes it or not, it is linked more closely with Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. than with any other state because of the three million Pakistanis who work there, sending home more than half of the total foreign exchange earning of Pakistan. Breaking with Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.—and the other states in the Middle East that have decided to recognize Israel—will not be of any advantage to Pakistan. The news coming from the U.A.E. is already not good. Expat Pakistanis report of taunts on the streets and demands for them “go home.”

In this climate, any decision on Israel—whether to recognize the state or not—could spell political suicide. But with Khan claiming the full support of the security establishment, he is likely far better placed to achieve consensus on this than any other political leader in recent memory.

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