Allia Bukhari

Gaza war to deter Pakistan-Israel rapprochement

Photo credits: Allia Bukhari

Since the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, Pakistan has maintained a pro-Palestine stance, refusing to establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish nation until a sovereign Palestinian state is created on the basis of pre-1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital. Amidst the recent escalation in violence between Hamas and Israel, resulting in over 9,000 Palestinians killed — the number mounts as the war in Gaza continues—  and 1,400 Israelis massacred and 240 taken as hostages, Islamabad reiterated calls for a lasting solution to the Palestinian issue “anchored in international law and in line with relevant United Nations and OIC resolutions”. The Pakistani passport also restricts citizens from traveling to the Jewish state, stating that it is “valid for all countries of the world except Israel”. Both Pakistan and Israel were created around the same time in history.

Despite its long-standing policy towards Israel centered on Palestinian statehood, behind the scenes talks have taken place between the Jewish state and the South Asian nation on various occasions, albeit denied by the Pakistani authorities several times. Speculation has made the rounds in Pakistan in the last few years about the possibility of accepting Israel, especially after the establishment of ties between the Jewish state and other Islamic countries in what was a US-brokered peace process. These countries also benefited from Israeli cooperation in various fields that later became the basis of open diplomatic relations.

The Abraham Accords  —  a series of deals brokered by the United States in 2020 to normalize relations between Israel and a number of Arab countries, including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco — were also seen as paving the way for more Islamic countries, including Pakistan, to consider the prospects of normalization eventually, with the narrative building on the possibility and strategic and geopolitical benefits from it for the South Asian country. Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Eli Cohen also claimed in September that “six or seven Muslim nations” were to sign normalization after Saudi Arabia, a development Pakistan was carefully observing though it dismissed the notion that it was among those states.

Riyadh was inching closer to normalization with Israel before the October 7 attacks, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touted as “a quantum leap” in the region. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman stated that the two countries were “getting closer every day” in an unprecedented, historic development that would have sealed Israel’s acceptance in the Islamic world given the influence Saudi Arabia holds as a home to Islam’s holiest sites. Israel has shown willingness to establish diplomatic relations with Pakistan and Bangladesh in the South Asian region. Its efforts, however, were not reciprocated due to the Palestinian issue.

The  Israeli think tank Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) stated in a research paper published in March that in the wake of the current dire economic situation and terrorism in Pakistan, Israel can covertly increase ties with the country, provide counter-terrorism and indirect economic support and do this through new Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In July, at the 53rd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Israel expressed a rare concern about the overall human rights situation in Pakistan, where it said “enforced disappearances, torture, crackdowns on peaceful protest and violence against religious minorities and other marginalized groups were prevalent”. This prompted a response from Pakistan’s Foreign Office, which dismissed the criticism as being “politically motivated”.

Attempts were made during the General Musharraf era in Pakistan to create some semblance of normalcy in ties with the first-ever direct Pakistan-Israel contact. In 2005, ex-foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri had a meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Silvan Shalom, in Turkey, following which Musharraf also briefly met prime minister Ariel Sharon in New York in a breakthrough moment. Musharraf was also the first Pakistani leader to publicly mull ties with Israel.

The war in Gaza will limit support in Pakistan on the prospects of recognizing Israel, which was earlier getting some attention. The main obstacle remains public opinion that largely favors the Palestinian cause and has seen a spike in anti-Israel outrage with the killing of civilians in Gaza ever since the Hamas attack put a dent in peace efforts in the region. Antisemitism that has long been fostered by religious hardliners and fundamentalists, who have a stronghold too, has a role to play in skepticism shown in recognizing Israel and initiating people-to-people ties. The right-wing parties have been vocal in their support of Hamas, which has carried out terrorist attacks in Israel. Pakistan, however, formally took a cautious approach and abstained from making any provocative or hostile remarks about Israel in an attempt to avoid jeopardizing its relations with friends in the West.

Islamabad may have been hesitant to establish ties with Israel due to religious solidarity with Arab countries, fear of backlash from conservative Muslim organizations around the world and within its own territory, but if Saudi Arabia establishes diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, despite the ongoing war in Gaza, and if US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby is to be believed  — who stated that Riyadh is still open to a normalization deal — Pakistan may also follow suit and adopt the Turkish, Jordanian, or Egyptian model in the long run.  For now, the war unfolding in Gaza has captured the focus and prompted intense backlash against the Israeli government in the general public despite a relatively careful approach by the caretaker government and state institutions on the matter. Pertinent to mention here is that Pakistan expresses support for the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank while initiating mass deportation of Afghan refugees at the same time. The backlash due to war is growing with a risk of a spike in antisemitism that the South Asian country already struggles to combat because of the influence of religious nationalism and far right parties over the years. 

About the Author
The writer is a journalist from Pakistan and an Erasmus Mundus scholar.
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