Debating the Israel Link

The News, September 27, 2005
Debating the Israel link
Imtiaz Alam

The writer is Editor, Current Affairs, The News, and Editor South Asian Journal

Revelations made by Pakistan's three former foreign secretaries were quite consummating about Islamabad's secret contacts with Israel since 1984 at SAFMA's seminar on the subject. The debate over initiating open contacts with Israel, however, remained confined to whether it was rightly packaged or timed and for the right reasons. Most participants from the audience suspected that President Pervez Musharraf might have done it for self-promotion while taking an exception to bypassing both the Cabinet and the Parliament on such an important policy shift. Concern for democracy was so overriding among an otherwise liberal audience that they refrained from giving any credence to the new foreign policy initiative. The real question, however, is that whether opening with Israel is in Pakistan's interest?

For too long Pakistan's national and foreign policies have been driven for ideological considerations. Pakistani nationalism woven around anti-India sentiment always suspected a "Jewish-Hindu" (Hanood-o-Yahood) conspiracy that was always supposedly at work against a self-appointed "leader of the Muslim world or umma". Soon after the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan, we sought our historical roots and solidarity with the Middle East and the Muslim world, even negating our cultural and historical roots in this land of the pure. With the exception of relations with China, driven by regional geopolitics, we sought a kind of a spiritual relief in supporting the "Muslim causes" and were rightly dubbed as bigger Arab than the Arabs. As we started to rethink in terms of "Pakistan first", reversed our flawed pro-Taliban and pro-jihad policies and entered a new phase of reconciliation with India, many other knots also started to unravel -- opening up the options that have long been foreclosed.

Thanks to our strategic partnership with the US and the western military blocks during the Cold War period, Pakistan was never close to the nationalist regimes, such as Gemal Abdul Naser's in Egypt. The Islamic movements, except for nationalist Deobandis, also sympathised with the Islamic movements in the Middle East, such as Ikhwanul Muslimoon. The democratic government of Prime Minister Suhrawardy even supported that blockade of Suez Canal against which there was a massive backlash in the Third World -- over which the Awami League got divided. The relations with the Muslim world in fact tremendously increased during Mr. Bhutto's time, after the defeat and dismemberment of the country at the hands of India. They took greater ideological dimension under General Zia during the Afghan war and Pakistan became a hub of militant Islam with overwhelming Arab (not Palestinian) connections.

On Palestine, although Pakistan has been a supporter of the Palestinian cause, it was General Zia who crushed the Palestinians' uprising in Jordan. Even during the Afghan war, there used to be close collaboration between the Israelis and other operatives in the Afghan jihad. The first secret contacts that Pakistan made were during General Zia's government when Islam as an ideology of state was much in fashion. It is also true that Pakistan had close relationship with the Palestinian leadership or the PLO during the liberal PPP's governments, and they were quite cold during General Zia's rule. It is also a fact that during the Cold War period, no Islamist party ever felt so strongly about the Palestinians, except for ritually expressing their concern for the liberation of Al-Aqsa mosque or Baitul Maqdas. It is only recently, after the emergence of Hamas, that they have started to feel the pain of the forgotten Palestinians. No militant outfit, be it of Pakistan or Afghan origin, ever had any relationship with the Palestinians. Not surprisingly, Al-Qaeda and its leaders had never espoused the Palestinian cause. These were only the left groups that had always championed the Palestinian cause. The fact of the matter is that, be it Syria or Egypt (except under Naser) or Jordan, many Arab countries stabbed the Palestinians in the back and the late Chairman Arafat had problems in having a permanent headquarter in the Arab world and had to move from one place to the other. Jordan had a claim on West Bank and Egypt had a claim on Gaza and Syrians have even louder claims on Palestinian territories and smashed Palestinians' bases in Lebanon. In the post Camp David period, the Arabs started to normalise relations with Israel -- some by formally recognising it and others by having liaison offices and trade relations.

During the course of its jihadi adventurism and isolationist policy, Pakistan had opened too many fronts. As we have started to close all these unnecessary fronts and mend our relations with all countries, it was imperative that we also mended our adversarial relationship with Israel. Be it Arab League or OIC and the Palestinians, they now all recognise Israel as a reality and its right to exist, even if it is a "colonial settler" state. Except for Hamas and some other militant groups, who vow to destroy Israel, most Palestinians and Arabs accept Israel as a reality, even though grudgingly. This is only an irony of history that the victims of holocaust turned into the perpetrators of oppression against the Palestinians who share a lot with the Jews and Christians in the ancient lands of the three mono-theist religions of the world. While Muslims and the Jews have greater similarities to share and had a longer history of coexistence, both had to suffer at the hands of Inquisition. Muslims never confused Judaism with Zionism nor nursed anti-Semitism. Enmity between the Muslims and Jews is only six decades old.

The only stumbling block between Israel and the Muslim world is the question of Palestine and creation of a Palestinian state. Pakistan has had no bilateral conflict with Israel. After becoming a nuclear-weapon state, it was imperative that Pakistan removed the Israeli apprehensions about the so-called "Islamic bomb" which was not in any way directed against Israel. Although Pakistan has again developed a close relationship with the US, but it knows it is not as solid as it would want it to be as compared to India who has entered into a far more preferential relationship with the US in July that also allows Washington's assistance in civilian nuclear reactors, despite the fact that India has not signed the NPT. It may also not be forgotten that Israel-India trade stands at 4.5 billion dollars and it is buying worth $2 billion of high tech arms from Israel, including three early-warning Phalcon aircrafts. Faced with increasing asymmetry in conventional weapons and eager to win the Jewish lobby in the US, Pakistan needed a much desired "diplomatic space" by opening up to Israel without making an about-turn on its Palestinian policy. And this is what President Musharraf has done. By making a fascinating address to the American Jewish Congress, President Musharraf has done a great service to the followers of both faiths and above all has neutralised the most powerful Jewish lobby in the US and has also somewhat assuaged Israeli apprehensions. The time is to make maximum benefit out of it by allowing liaison offices for trade and regular informal interactions to also encourage Israel to allow the emergence of a Palestinian state for permanent peace in the Middle East and revival of normal Jewish-Muslim relations.

No doubt a military ruler has taken this decision. Should it be opposed simply because of our legitimate concern for democracy? Should we have opposed the reversal of pro-Taliban and jihadi policies because they were being undertaken by a dictator? By the way, except for Mr. Bhutto who consulted everybody before signing the Simla Accord or Mr. Juenjo before the Geneva Accord, which government in Pakistan has ever taken the people or their representative institution into confidence before taking such a major policy decision? Did Liaquat Ali Khan on cancelling his visit to Moscow? Did Suhrawardy on Suez Canal? Did Nawaz on back channel with India? Were the last five parliaments sovereign in formulating foreign and security policies? But, of course, this does not mean that there should not be a democratic sanction behind every major decision of a government. The President must have taken the nation into confidence. Lastly, even if the decision to open up to Israel has been taken for expeditious political reasons as some critics allege, so what? If it is a good decision, that it is, we should have the courage to support it, regardless of the intentions of the decision maker. And to make a crucial policy decision credible, the cabinet and the Parliament should have been taken into confidence. But which parliament and cabinet are we talking about?



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