Pakistan has stunned the world and its subcontinental neighbor and rival India by making an overture to Israel, which it long shunned and condemned as a Zionist state.
On Thursday, Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri met his Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom in Istanbul, Turkey. Shalom described the meeting held at the initiative of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf as "historic," and a prelude to an open and mutually beneficial relationship between the two countries.
The two countries could soon agree to establish formal diplomatic relations, according to reports appearing in the the Jerusalem Post on Friday.
Moves are now afoot to arrange a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Musharraf in New York in mid-September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, which the two leaders are expected to address.
But whether or not a meeting actually takes place will depend on Islamabad’s assessment of the severity of reactions to the Kasuri-Shalom meeting, both domestically and from the larger Muslim world.
In any case, Musharraf is scheduled to address the powerful pro-Israel lobby group, the American Jewish Congress (AJC), on Sept. 17 in New York a move that is pregnant with political significance.
The Jerusalem Post wondered why, if Musharraf worried about opposition to his addressing the AJC, he would want to accept the invitation in the first place. It then cited diplomatic views to suggest that the reason was "not because he has suddenly discovered his Zionistic side, but as a way to throw a spoke in the wheels of the strong and growing Israeli-Indian ties, and also as a way to please America."
Musharraf already bit that bullet when he allied with the United States in the war against terror in Afghanistan, throttling in the process Islamabad’s own creation, the Taliban government, and beating down an Indian bid to enter the fray on the side of the Western allies.
While Pakistan’s move to befriend Israel is likely to further consolidate its relations with the United States, it will create complications in its ties with the Arab world, produce domestic difficulties, and generate pressures within India to outmaneuver Pakistan by deepening New Delhi’s already close relations with Israel.
India has emerged as the world’s largest importer of armaments, overtaking China. And Israel has become India’s single largest source of arms supply, with recent deals totaling as much as $2.8 billion.
India and Israel also share intelligence. In recent years, Israeli defense personnel and secret service agencies have trained Indian security forces in "counterinsurgency" operations, especially those focused on Kashmir.
"The great irony here is that Pakistan regards Kashmir as the ‘central’ issue and the biggest problem in its relations with India," said Kamal Mitra Chenoy, professor of international relations at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University in an IPS interview.
"It would be interesting to watch how Islamabad tries to match the great concern it professes for the welfare and human rights of the Kashmiri people with friendship with Israel, which strongly supports India’s position on Kashmir and has helped it fight the separatist movement there, which Pakistan backs."
Added Chenoy: "In the past, Israel is believed to have even offered military assistance to India in secret plans that New Delhi once toyed with to attack Pakistan’s nuclear facilities a repeat of what Israel did to Iraq’s Osirak nuclear research reactor in 1981 when it was still under construction."
Until recently, Pakistan took a harder line against Israel than some Arab states. Now, it could become the fifth Muslim-majority country to have diplomatic relations with Israel, the other four states being Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, and Mauritania. (Turkey and Israel have also worked together as military allies in NATO-sponsored security arrangements).
Unlike many Muslim-majority countries, Pakistan describes itself as an Islamic state and makes a distinction between its citizens on the ground of religion. Non-Muslims have separate legislative constituencies.
Islamabad’s overture to Israel has already drawn a hostile response from right-wing Islamicists in Pakistan, organized in the six-party Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, as well as the Pakistan People’s Party led by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
The decision also came in for vitriolic criticism from the Islamic-radical group Hamas, which condemned it "in the strongest terms," and said it was a stab in the back of the "Palestinian people and their just cause."
Officially, the Pakistan government has only said it is "engaging" Israel and not recognizing it. But domestically, it is clearly on the defensive.
Why has Musharraf taken this extremely controversial and risky step, which is likely to stir domestic trouble for him? "The principal reason is U.S. pressure," says K.P. Fabian, a former Indian diplomat, scholar, and a Middle East expert. "Washington has been pushing Musharraf to befriend Israel and thus demonstrate that Pakistan is indeed the ‘moderate’ Islamic state that he pledges he wants it to be."
Fabian added that this was also a "way of demonstrating that Pakistan, a U.S. ally in the war against terrorism, is fully mindful and supportive of Washington’s vital security interests, which in the Middle East are represented by Israel. Pakistan was only waiting to make the pro-Israel move. Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip gave it the right opportunity or excuse."
Competing with India in befriending Israel is at best a secondary or minor motive in this calculation. But the pro-Israeli lobby in India has seized upon this to demand that New Delhi adopt a warmer approach toward Israel and build even closer relations.
It accuses the Indian government of "twiddling its thumbs" while Pakistan seizes the moment. It is pressing for a visit to Israel by the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in reciprocation of Sharon’s (extremely controversial) visit to India in 2003 under the Vajpayee government which had an aggressively pro-Zionist stance and called for a strategic alliance with Israel.
Sections of the diplomatic and security communities in India see proximity to Israel as the key to getting into "the inner circle" of Washington’s close allies.
If Pakistan consolidates friendly relations with Israel, these sections will mount a hyperactive campaign for outmaneuvering Pakistan in building an exclusive strategic partnership with Israel that could produce a peculiar sideshow to the already intense India-Pakistan rivalry.
"It is hard to imagine how much Pakistan really stands to gain from relations with Israel," said Chenoy. "Some arms deals may be in the offing, but these may not be substantial. In any case, it will be hard for the Musharraf government to argue that the Gaza withdrawal represents a major shift in Israeli policy."
Israeli leaders are clear that the withdrawal shifts the demographic balance in Israel-Palestine favorably toward the Jewish population. Besides, they have plans to create more settlements in the West Bank, rather than vacate existing ones. The West Bank has 400,000 Jewish settlers. Gaza had only 8,000.
The Gaza issue allowed Pakistan to move expediently from informal contacts and unacknowledged meetings with Israeli leaders to overt and acknowledged talks. Successive Pakistani governments, including those led by the late dictator Gen. Zia-ul Haq, Nawaz Sharif, and Benazir Bhutto made informal contacts with Israel. Recently, Pakistan stepped up its efforts.
This past January, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres "ran into each other" at the World Economic Forum at Davos. Since then, more moves have been made.
Pakistan may try to justify relations with Israel on the ground that this would allow it to play a positive role in the Israeli peace process on behalf of the Palestinians, analysts said. But it is unclear if many people, especially Pakistanis, will buy this argument.
(Inter Press Service)