September 2, 2005Foreign Affairs

Hello Tel Aviv! This is Islamabad

Pakistan to befriend Israel. Musharraf to befriend the American Jewish community.

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Jews and Israel are the flavour of the month in Pakistan (linkthanks: Swami Iyer). Silvan Shalom, Israel’s foreign minister shook hands with Khurshid Kasuri, his Pakistani counterpart after a historic’ meeting in Istanbul. And when Gen Musharraf makes his way to the United States later this month, he is slated to address the American Jewish Congress-Council. Two years ago, Gen Musharraf tested the air and concluded that the time was not right for Pakistan to move forward and engage Israel more openly (via Proscrastination). This time round, he has calculated that he can make another attempt. He may not be wrong.

By the 1980s it had become clear to both India and Pakistan that not recognising Israel was proving to be largely counterproductive. While the Narasimha Rao government is better remembered for turning India’s economic policy on its head, it was also responsible for transforming India’s policy towards Israel too. India took advantage of the opportunity created by the Oslo accords and formally recognised Israel in 1992. More than a decade later, Pakistan is attempting to do something similar — using the opportunity created by Israel’s pullout from Gaza to move ahead with a process of official engagement. However, given political opinion within Pakistan as well as among its allies in the Islamic world, it will be difficult for Pakistan to pursue normal diplomatic relations that would come with formal recognition.

While the absence of official relations has not prevented Pakistan and Israel from geopolitical liaison — even to the point of using Israeli weapons in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan — the need for a stronger footing to official bilateral relations has become pressing due to two reasons. Firstly, India and Israel have gotten along rather famously in the last decade, with India already one of Israel’s top defence customers. Secondly, the Pakistani military establishment, which has spent more than two decades worrying about a Israeli pre-emptive strike on its nuclear facilities now has some missiles that are capable of reaching Israel. While Pakistan has had some form of nuclear risk reduction measures with India for some time, it needs to develop something along similar lines with Israel.

Gen Musharraf does not need to engage the American Jewish community to pursue better relations with Israel (although the converse may be true). He is acutely aware of the influence of the Jewish lobby in Washington, and with his own inability to find favour with this quarter. To remain in power in Pakistan, he needs to enjoy the support of the United States. His own public image has received a battering after the state-organised harassment of rape victims, bombings in London and revelations that jihadis continue to receive training in Pakistani jihadi camps. In his calculation, making friends with some very influential Americans will help ensure that the flow of political support, economic aid and military hardware will not suffer on account of the bad press that he receives. And why, making friends with those influential Americans may even help reduce the amount of bad press in the first place.

Related Links: P R Kumaraswamy’s excellent analysis of Pakistan-Israel relations on PINR, and an earlier one (pdf file) from Tel Aviv University.

The Palestinians, including those in the Palestinian Authority, are not terribly impressed, even though the Daily Times argues that Pakistan can do more for them by officially engaging Israel. Pakistan’s religious opposition has been quick off the mark, condemning the move as against Pakistan’s national ideology. Musharraf has defused some of the pressure by insisting that Pakistan will not recognise until resolves the Palestinian issue.

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