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Imran Khan and Israel

by Khaled Ahmed
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File Photo. Abbas Momani—AFP

Recent moves by Arab states to recognize Israel are motivated by profit as the U.S. distances itself from the region

Prime Minister Imran Khan told the people of Pakistan in his exclusive one-on-one interview with TV host Kamran Khan that he would never support Pakistan recognizing Israel—as the U.A.E. has done recently—“because the founder of Pakistan the Quaid-e-Azam had refused to consider recognizing Israel as long as the Palestinians were not given back their land occupied by Israel.” His remark was well received because most Pakistanis feel the same way about Israel: an artificial state created by force to subjugate the Palestinian Muslims.

Unfortunately, the Gulf Arabs have stopped thinking in this “permanently” settled way. In recent history they have faced internal upheavals that tended to shift their threat perception inward, in particular the Arab Spring, demanding democracy in the Arab states but unfortunately resulting in the dominance of militant extremists determined to overthrow the sheikhdoms of the Gulf. They also saw the rise of Iran as a potential nuclear power with effective “missile” outreach especially after the “permissive” 2015 accord by the European powers and the United States with “Tehran’s aggressive ayatollahs.” The threat from Israel became dwarfed by these internal Arab challenges and an external Iran that had Shia populations living in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

The U.A.E. has a population of a million strong and the only state it is not scared of is next door Israel with a population of 9 million. Like Saudi Arabia, it is scared of keeping an army because the Arab tendency is for the army to take over the state, banish if not kill the rulers, and convert the country into a warrior state that doesn’t last as long as the “sheikhs” seek to. The emirates aspire to an “inclusive” trading state, which doesn’t appeal to the common “jihad-dreaming” Muslim man. The U.A.E. and Oman have furtively reached out to Iran seeking a commerce-based relationship. They have the same kind of receptivity toward Israel, with whom the Arab states have collectively fought wars only to be defeated. When Israel defeats the Arab world no one comes to help, not even Pakistan sworn to fight the “irreconcilable” Jew.

Pakistan’s own dilemma is not much different from the Gulf Arabs. Its ideology is close to the Taliban and Islamic State and Al Qaeda—the last-named was secretly sheltered in Pakistan even after the 9/11—but it has started realizing that it is not India or Israel that threatens it but its own Taliban hiding in Afghanistan. It had used the so-called non-state actors to infiltrate India and Kashmir “to teach its enemy a lesson”; but more and more strategists think that it is the western border from where Pakistan is threatened, not by India, but by its own Muslim brethren who want Pakistan to be a truly Islamic state, a kind of Arab Spring-like trauma that Pakistan doesn’t know how to handle. Infiltrators across the Durand Line continue to attack and kill Army personnel, which it understandably blames on India because it is reluctant to diagnose its internal “ideological” threats.

The “shopkeeper” Gulf states want to survive—as all commercially structured entities would like to—in preference to war. They have approached Iran and made repeated gestures towards it, which can be seen as appeasement from Pakistan’s angle. It is only natural that they regard Israel as a potential friend because it doesn’t threaten them directly. Almost all the Arab neighbors of Israel have overt or secret agreements with it, which forms the basis of the security they feel vis-à-vis Israel. (Oman even received Israeli P.M. Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife as private guests, and Oman and its sultan have been perceived by the world as the wisest of the Muslim states.)

After coming to power, U.S. President Donald Trump examined the Arab dilemma closely and decided to take on Iran, which was threatening the Arabs across the Gulf with its “missile power.” He took the United States out of the anti-nuclear “accord” with Iran that the U.S. had signed together with its European allies and asked his son-in-law to ply private diplomacy with the Arabs to get them to recognize Israel. First, in 2019, he warned Iran through his national security adviser John Bolton that any action taken by Iran against America’s allies in the region would be met with “unrelenting force.” Then, in January 2020, a gathering in Washington of the “affected parties” to conclude the “recognition” campaign, included those scared enough of Iran to seek security from Israel.

Before this happened however Trump did the most unexpected thing in September 2019: he told the Gulf States that the U.S. was no longer interested in coming to their help if attacked by Iran because America no longer needed oil from the Middle East. This warning was the game-changer in the region. The Arabs started looking around for support and found a friend in India with 8.5 million expat Indians residing in the Gulf. This however put off Kashmir-obsessed Pakistan with its either/or worldview and compelled Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to criticize Saudi Arabia for not agreeing to convene a session of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to condemn India’s cartographic annexation of the disputed territory of Kashmir.

The Middle East Monitor published the following news this week: “Pakistan’s effort to repair relations with Saudi Arabia has been snubbed by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. The de facto ruler of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia refused to meet with Islamabad’s Army Chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, who was in the Gulf state to mend ties between the two countries. Bajwa returned home after being declined a meeting with bin Salman, known popularly as MBS. Instead, Bajwa had to settle for a meeting with the 34-year-old’s younger brother, Deputy Defense Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Salman, and Maj. Gen. Fayyad Al Ruwaili, the kingdom’s chief of general staff. It is reported that Bajwa conveyed regret over comments made by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, which angered the Saudis. Qureshi insisted that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), dominated largely by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states, must show leadership on the issue of Kashmir.”

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