Relations With Israel Could Help Pakistan, Says Former President Musharraf

In his first interview with an Israeli newspaper, former president Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan tells Haaretz about Pakistan-U.S. relations, Iran's nuclear ambitions, and how he would solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
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Danna Harman
Danna Harman

LONDON - We are seven minutes early. The woman accompanying me, who has helped set up the interview, suggests we remain seated in her chauffeured car outside the entrance, right off Hyde Park, and wait. Two minutes pass. Three. We both look at our watches. Four. We sit. "The General is very punctual," she explains. "It would not be right to show up early."

"Of course."

General Pervez Musharraf during his historic visit to India in 2005.Credit: AP

Five. Six.

A kind-faced servant opens the door, takes our winter coats and leads us into the modest apartment. I seat myself on the puffy couch, accept a glass of icy water, decline a greasy bureka, and glance around: golden decorative swords on the mantle, a sugar bowl featuring Klimt's "The Kiss" on the coffee table, and a big-screen TV tuned to a golf championship, on mute.

And then he walks in, wearing a tweed jacket and beige corduroys, and, since he has just come back from a wedding in the United States the night before, looking a little sleepy: four star general Pervez Musharraf, one of Pakistan's longest serving rulers, who today lives in self imposed exile in London. He shakes my hand warmly, clicks off the golf, and we begin.

Born in 1943 to a prominent family, Musharraf joined the military, zoomed through the ranks and was made chief of the army in 1998. A year later, he took power in a bloodless coup, ousting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and promising to bring democracy, law and order to Pakistan.

Almost a decade later and under threat of impeachment, Musharraf resigned. But he had already secured his place in history by allying Pakistan with the United States against the Taliban after the September 11 attacks, and going on to play a pivotal role on the world stage in the war against terror. It was a role that required walking a fine line between U.S. demands to crack down on extremism in Pakistan - previously one of only three countries in the world to give diplomatic recognition to the Taliban - and demands at home from an increasingly vocal anti-American Islamist constituency.

This was not the only tightrope act Musharraf attempted to carry out during his time in office. Four years ago, in an interview with Al-Arabiya, the leader of the second largest Muslim country in the world took many by surprise by offering his services as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and hinting he would be willing to travel to Israel, a sworn enemy country, as part of this effort.

Two years before, addressing a gathering of the American Jewish Congress in New York (where his presence was in itself highly unusual ) Musharraf all but said that Pakistan could be open to establishing ties with the Jewish State.

As it turned out, he never became a mediator in the conflict, nor were relations forged between Israel and Pakistan. But now Musharraf - who has vowed to return home in the coming months and run for the presidency again - sits down with a Haaretz reporter in his first-ever interview with an Israeli newspaper to revisit these suggestions and chat about the future for his country, ours, and a great deal more.


"I felt I needed to test the waters in Pakistan when it came to Israel. Yes. We have been anti-Israel in Pakistan because of Palestine, because the Pakistani people are on the side of the Palestinians and are concerned for their plight. Right from the beginning, from when we got our independence in '47 and Israel came into reality a year later, we have been pro-Palestine," begins Musharraf.

"But I believe in realism and in assessing ground realities. I think it's necessary to understand the changing environment, analyze it - and respond. A lot has happened since '48, and one has to adjust. Policies are made, yes, but when the environment changes, policies should change. Policies should not remain constant."

Musharraf is talking about one particular new reality, he admits, or, perhaps, more accurately, one reality that is newly clear to some.

"Israel is a fait accompli," he states. "A lot of the Muslim world have understood that and I know many Muslim countries have relations with Israel, whether above board or covertly. So this is the change in reality I am talking about. Pakistan has to keep demanding the resolution of the Palestinian dispute ... [but] Pakistan also needs to keep readjusting its diplomatic stand toward Israel based on the mere fact that it exists and is not going away."

Is that a position shared by many in your country?

"I think so. I started making such statements a long time ago, testing the waters. I spoke to the American Jewish Congress and then I spoke in the media about this ... And to both of these tests, the responses were positive. The papers and the general public were all positive. Then I took the initiative of having our foreign minister meet your foreign minister - they met openly in Turkey [in September 2005, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmoud Kasuri met with then Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom in Istanbul in the countries' first publicly acknowledged high-level contact] and that was also received positively."

In fact, Musharraf might not recall, or be misrepresenting the reactions to his testing of the waters, because not all of it was as positive as he suggests. Secular parties in Pakistan accused him of playing up to the Americans, and religious parties there threatened street protests to oust the government if it took even a small step toward the recognition of Israel. Others in the government then backpedaled on their leader's behalf, with both Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali and Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed reiterating the country's traditional policy toward Israel, and the Foreign Office jumping in and joining the chorus.

But Musharraf insists: "There was no negative fallout. I don't remember anyone speaking out negatively against me or what I did."

In any case, it was a risk, he allows. "There is always risk in any new initiative. You can never be sure [what the reaction will be]. But a leader who is not prepared to take risks is not a leader. I believe that leaders should generally flow with public opinion. But there are times and issues where the public opinion goes astray, or is anchored in wrong premises - and to change that is the leader's job. That's where real leadership emerges. Changing the public's opinion is part of leadership. Leadership is not standing at the head of a herd and carrying out things you feel are wrong.

"Pakistan, like Israel, is an ideological state. That is the foundation of our creation. We are an Islamic republic," he says. "Which goes toward explaining why Pakistani Muslims are much more sensitive about Islam than most other Muslim countries. We are extremely sensitive about desecration of the Koran. So we are wholly sensitive to the Palestinian plight and any new initiative regarding Israel has to be proposed very delicately."

Would you say there is anti-Semitism in Pakistan?

"There is a dislike of Israel, but antiSemitism - I don't think so," he replies slowly. "There are not many Jews living in Pakistan, so that has never been a real question." Asked about the recent furor caused by the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, who insinuated that Israel's political positions may explain anti-Semitism in Muslim countries, Musharraf again considers his words carefully.

"I think that may be correct. Especially when the Jewish community anywhere in the world immediately orients itself with Israel - on the Palestinian issue, but also on any issue in the Arab world," he replies. "For example, in the U.S., if a presidential candidate utters a word against Israel or the Jews, all Jews gravitate against him. So candidates have to be pro-Israel. This is all seen by the Muslim world and then there is a reaction against it. This is harmful, and dangerous, evoking and confirming the clash of civilizations."

What Musharraf perceives as the oversized influence of the Jewish lobby in the U.S. comes in for especially harsh criticism.

"The lobby is exactly what is disliked in the Muslim world. Why is the U.S. like that? Now, for example, when there was a move in the United Nations to recognize Palestine, the whole world is on one side, and the U.S. is on the other. These are the things that are seen in the Muslim world as totally partisan and biased in favor of Israel and Jews - because of Jewish influence, the U.S. is totally pro-Israel. They don't see realities and they are unfair to the point of violating justice. On one side they believe in democracy, say, but then Hamas wins and they change their position. What kind of a dual policy is this? I think the U.S. needs to look inward and I would say the Jewish community in the U.S. needs to look inward as well," he argues.

"We feel on the defensive. And this has led to guerrilla warfare and terrorism, which we see as a force equalizer ... You are alienating the Muslim community as a whole and that is why extremism and Islamic political parties are gaining strength," he says, pointing at the changes in the Arab world today, and the ground being gained by religious political parties in countries like Egypt or Tunisia.

And yet, when asked what Pakistan has to gain by getting closer to Israel, the very thing that most irks Musharraf - i.e., the perceived Jewish influence in the U.S. and elsewhere - is what he points out as a potential prize.

"What do we stand to gain? First of all, there is an unnecessary opposition by Israel to Pakistan in all international forums," he says, without specifying what forums. "And the world media is part of this, yes. Israel has clout in the media. I would say the Jewish community has clout in the media, in the U.S. and elsewhere. Which leads to unnecessary opposition to us. Israel is a country which has certain clout. Especially with the U.S. backing it. In any case, there is nothing to lose by trying to get on Israel's good side," he says, fumbling with the answer somewhat.

Musharraf is on more confident ground when describing another reason why it might be in Pakistan's interest to get closer to Israel - the India factor.

"The issue of India is another sensitivity in Pakistan - Israel has always been pro-India against Pakistan," he says.

Maybe that is in part because we have not had the opportunity to forge relations with Pakistan

"Well, yes. That's right. But that does not mean you should be actively anti-Pakistan, supporting India on important issues such as the Kashmir dispute, advising them, and cooperating on intelligence, which is a very big deal. Pakistan adjusting its stance toward Israel has the advantage of possibly breaking those anti-Pakistan activities," he says.

I ask him where his independent thinking in assessing the pros and cons of a situation, such as relations with Israel, comes from.

"I don't know," he says, laughs, and gives it some thought. "I suppose from my military training. I was always an analytical and independent thinker, but it really was magnified by that training. And then, I don't read that much. Some people read and acquire things from the books and statements of others - but I generate my own ideas as opposed to borrowing them. I believe in my own theories."

What do you read when you sit down with a book? Novels? I ask, leading to an inadvertent and interesting aside - Musharraf, it turns out, is an Ariel Sharon fan.

"I used to read novels. But now, mostly just military history. I enjoy that. I like reading about Napoleonic campaigns. And I have read about all the Israeli-Arab wars and that is how I know about Ariel Sharon," he says. "I know how he contributed toward the victories of the Israelis. In every war it was his contribution that counted. Every time this man contributed. He is a great military leader ... My admiration comes from a place of realistic assessment of his military exploits, which were very impressive. I think he was a great military commander and I appreciate that."

And what about Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who Musharraf once shook hands with in a Parisian lobby when the two happened to be visiting France at the same time, I ask. How do you rate him?

Clearly the lobby get-together did not make that big an impression. "Frankly, I don't know as much about him," he responds.

Going back to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, when you once said you would be willing to be a mediator, what did you have in mind? And with so many problems of your own in Pakistan, why do you care so much about our conflict?

"I personally think the Palestinian dispute is at the foundation of many of our bigger problems. Look at terrorism and extremism, 9/11, Al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Hamas - all these are products of the unsettled Palestinian dispute. Because of the misery these Palestinians are suffering, which is seen all over the world on TV, there is a reaction.

If you go back to the history of the Muslim world, you see that for centuries we were colonized - all of us except Turkey. When we gained independence after the Second World War, we were illiterate, backward and poor, almost all of us, and the Palestinian issue arose as a focal point. This aroused sympathetic feelings in the whole Muslim world and affected the collective mind of the Muslims.

"And, with the root of so many problems in the Palestinian problem, I was thinking, how is it that we have not solved the dispute and it is causing so much trouble to the whole world, especially to the Muslim world, and it has come to our region now, to Afghanistan, with Al-Qaida and all this.

"And I thought, who is involved? It's the U.S., Israel and the Arabs. But these people have failed, so who else should take it on? And I thought of the non-Arab Muslims - namely Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. These are four very important Muslim countries, and I thought we should join with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and all together, these seven, we would make an acceptable mediating team."

Musharraf then goes on to relay how, in 2006, he went to the capital of each of these countries, told the leaders about his plan to create a fresh mediation effort and got them all on board. "I did not discuss it with the Israelis, although of course they knew because I was talking openly about it," he adds. And indeed, Israel at the time did welcome Musharraf's publicly-stated offer to help, but also said it was doubtful the Pakistani leader could make much progress.

Interestingly, during those travels to the various capitals, Musharraf also went to Iran to explain why they were not being asked to join the grouping he was putting together. "I went there personally to tell Ahmadinejad why he was not a part of this group. I told him that there was a basic difference of opinion between us. While we seven are willing to accept the reality of Israel in exchange for a peace process, you are against the very entity of Israel. So therefore you cannot be a part of the group."

And what did Ahmadinejad reply? I want to know. "Well, no. he was not prepared to accept this changed attitude toward accepting the reality," responds Musharraf.

It does not seem that will ever happen there, I say. He nods. "With the current government, no."

Ultimately, nothing came of Musharraf's mediation plan, in great part because, at around the same time, his own political fortunes were shifting.

Discontent in some circles over Musharraf's standing up to the Taliban and Al-Qaida, as well as with his insistence on remaining both head of the military and head of the country at the same time began to boil over in March 2007, at which point he decided to suspend the country's chief justice. The move backfired, leading to huge protests against Musharraf's perceived flouting of the rule of law, and ultimately to a showdown between him and the supreme court, which had refused to validate his electoral victory in October. He declared a state of emergency, removed several supreme court judges and was pronounced president again. But the die had been cast.

According to cables sent from the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv to Washington and published by WikiLeaks this year, Israel was among those concerned by what was going on in Pakistan at this time - an indication, it seems, of some affinity for Musharraf, or at least a sense that he was better than anyone who might follow.

One cable describes then Mossad Chief Meir Dagan telling U.S. under secretary of state William Burns at an August 2007 meeting that he was worried about how long Musharraf could survive: "He is facing a serious problem with the militants. Pakistan's nuclear capability could end up in the hands of an Islamic regime," Dagan was quoted as saying.

In another cable at about the same time, Defense Minister Barak is quoted speaking to a visiting American delegation and describing Pakistan as his "private nightmare." If there is an Islamic extremist takeover in Pakistan, Barak reportedly said, the world might wake up "with everything changed."

Meanwhile, after months of political instability, Nawaz Sharif, one of Musharraf's main political enemies, returned to Pakistan from exile to agitate against his nemesis. This, and even more significantly, the assassination of opposition figure Benazir Bhutto - and the accusations by some that Musharraf had not provided her with adequate security - fueled calls for the president to resign. Close to being impeached, Musharraf announced his resignation on August 18, 2008.

But if he had stayed in office, he says today, he would have had plenty of advice for Israelis and Palestinians, whose conflict, he believes, can be resolved.

"Because I was involved in the peace process in India on Kashmir I developed a sense of what is required to solve any settlement, and it certainly applies to the Israelis and Palestinians," he says, glossing over the fact that the Kashmir conflict is far from settled. "There are three things needed. One - sincerity on both sides, of head and heart. No bluff game and no politics. Two - flexibility to accept the views of others. And three is the key - boldness and courage. I say this is key because in any deal you cannot take everything. The other side will not allow this. You have to give and take. Leaders are afraid of that 'give' because they are afraid of the backlash in their own backyard, but as long as you are convinced that the positives outweigh the negatives, you must be bold. And, as a leader, for the sake of the bigger good, you must make the right move, even if you lose on a personal note. Leadership demands sacrifice and courage."

Musharraf is not just directing these suggestions at Israel's leadership. "I mean both sides," he clarifies. "Arafat did not take certain steps, as I understand it, because he was afraid of threats to him, personally, upon his return [from Camp David]. If you are more concerned with your own political clout or personal safety than you are with the gain accrued to your people and the whole Muslim world, then there is some weakness in yourself as a leader."

Israel, Musharraf goes on to suggest, should not expect everything to be "hunky-dory, with no attacks and no bullet fire. You will never get that. This guerrilla warfare will continue, and then settle down gradually. But you can not expect there to be no Hamas and no Hezbollah and no rockets at all."

He pauses, and makes a concluding point: "And the government should not be arrogant either. Humility works - never arrogance. Humility does not clash with strength. You can be strong and humble at the same time. Humility has to do with behavior, with interaction."

Turning from talk about real or perceived arrogance, I ask about relations between the U.S. and Pakistan today. Why have they deteriorated so much?

"The problem has to do, in part, with the situation in Afghanistan, which is so unclear, especially as the U.S. is planning to leave in 2014. What are they going to leave behind? Will there be a semblance of political and military stability in Afghanistan? This is one serious issue. I personally think there can be some kind of a political arrangement, but I don't know what the Americans are trying to do there. If Pakistan is kept out of a peace process - and more than that, if India is brought into it - well, that is absolutely a recipe for disaster."

But beyond the frustrations and differences over the current situation in Afghanistan, there is a deep-seated and longstanding resentment of America in Pakistan, Musharraf explains.

"If you go back to before to 9/11 - if you go back 12 years previous - well, there was a real sense that we had been abandoned by the Americans during this time. A feeling that Pakistan had been used, and then abandoned. It was a real betrayal," he begins, settling in for a history lesson. "Until 1989 we were their strategic partners, we won the Cold War for them and fought the Soviets for 10 years in the lead role. But then, in the '90s, the U.S. shifted strategic policies toward India and away from Pakistan, and this was seen as a betrayal.

"They put sanctions on us and refused to help us, even as we bore the brunt of whatever was happening in Afghanistan, with four million refugees coming into Pakistan, and we bore the brunt of the freedom fighters in Kashmir, with mujahedeen groups, dozens of them, erupting within Pakistan. This is when militancy got introduced into Pakistan. There was a clear anti-U.S. feeling. And then in the midst of all this came 9/11.

"My decision to join the coalition had much opposition within Pakistan; I would not say everyone was behind this decision," he admits. "But I knew it was the right choice. As I said, leadership demands you make the bold decision and lead, and I felt this was in our interest. I took the decision because it was the best thing for us, not because I was trying to help America," he stresses. "But unfortunately we could not move the Afghanistan situation toward improvement. Blunders were made, many of my ideas were not accepted and now things are deteriorating more and more, leaving great distrust."

Speaking of mistrust, I have to ask the uncomfortable question Musharraf is faced with these days everywhere he goes. Namely, how is it possible that Osama bin Laden was hiding out in Pakistan all those years, right under the government's nose?

"I say the question is, was there complicity or negligence?" he responds. "And I strongly believe it was negligence. Of course, that's not great either, it's terrible negligence and shameful. But, while both are bad - complicity would be worse.

"I am very sure about my answer," says Musharraf. "Especially so because when they say bin Laden was there for five years, that means two years under my watch. Well, one cannot be sure of others, but one can be sure of oneself. And I am 100 percent sure of myself that I did not know he was there. I don't have any doubt of that. I know there was no complicity for those two years. And perhaps there was complicity during the latter three years, but I don't believe that either. It's not possible. It was negligence."

Musharraf then tries to explain how such negligence could possibly occur. "When a man is not using telephone communications, it is human intelligence that comes to ISI [Pakistan's intelligence service] - but no one knew him around that area. None of the neighbors knew him."

Musharraf is angry at what he sees as a tendency in the West to portray bin Laden's hideout as easy to spot, thus insinuating that the Pakistanis were either completely incompetent or, more likely, cooperating with the terrorist. "They say in the West that he was living in a garrison town, and that the house was huge, with exceptionally high walls which stood out. But I disagree with all of this. This was no Fort Bragg [a massive U.S. army base in North Carolina]. He was staying in an open, tourist resort kind of place. Anyone going to the north could stop there. There are hotels, and schools and stores - so the story is exaggerated. And the house? It was bigger than average, but not much. And walls? They don't necessarily have walls in the U.S. around houses - but in Pakistan the first thing a man does when he gets a house is build a wall around it. That may be abnormal in the West, but it's perfectly normal in Pakistan and does not arouse any suspicion at all."

Finally, I ask about Iran - in particular about a nuclear Iran, a subject on which Pakistan might be expected to have something to say.

"The question is about a nuclear weapon and a delivery system. Do they have it? I don't know. My knowledge is that proliferation did take place from Pakistan. Yes, unfortunately there was proliferation," he says, referring obliquely to Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's atom bomb, who admitted five years ago that he passed nuclear secrets to Tehran and Libya. The disclosures forced Musharraf to act against Khan, before issuing a pardon and confining the proliferator - who is still hailed as a national hero in Pakistan - to house arrest.

"But that involved enrichment of uranium. That does not mean possession of a bomb. Because turning uranium into a bomb is a totally different technology. Not only that, but exploding that bomb means you need a trigger mechanism - a totally different technology again. And then that mechanism needs to be of the right size to be fired in a delivery system, another issue because that means reducing its size. So, I really don't know if Iran has all this.

"However, even if they are headed toward that, I cannot imagine a government or a leader who would be mad enough to use a nuclear device against anyone. We are talking after the experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were kiloton bombs. And now we are talking of megatons. What a disaster. What loss. What misery. How can anyone even imagine such a thing?"

Is he mad? After all, you know Ahmadinejad better than most of us in Israel do.

"I don't know him that well," responds Musharraf. "And - well, he is a person who is rigid and who is inflexible. But using a bomb is not an easy thing. And I wouldn't, I wouldn't call him mad." Musharraf adds, as if an afterthought, "I am no scientist, but I am reasonably sure the fallout of using such a bomb would be big, so it would affect other Muslim countries. Anyway, I think it would be mad to even think of using these weapons."

Iran is in a very different situation than Pakistan, says Musharraf, stressing that his own country's weapons are "100 percent only for deterrence. We want to be left alone. We don't want anyone to mess around with us or militarily try to dominate us or dominate us in other ways, politically or economically. This is our deterrence.

"Just like Israel has an existential threat, Pakistan has an existential threat," Musharraf continues, criticizing those in the West who have dubbed Pakistan's weapon an Islamic bomb. "Why not a Jewish bomb, or a Hindu bomb? Why is ours called an Islamic bomb? We have a right to defend ourselves.

"Every country has either its own threat perception - which leads to its defensive position - or its own image about projecting power - which is offensive in nature. Most countries of the world use forces for defense. But some countries, like the U.S., Russia, China or India are trying to project their powers. Otherwise what are they doing? Who threatens India?

"Iran does not need the deterrence. They do not have a threat. I don't understand why they have the bomb, except for maybe their own views of grandeur. They are used to being a big empire and so maybe they think they might need the clout of being in the nuclear club. But I don't imagine they would be developing it so as to use it, in these days, against anyone."

We may have started exactly on time, but as we reach the end of the allotted one hour of interview time, Musharraf seems content to continue. I turn the recorder back on and we talk about his planned return to Pakistan in March. The man who survived numerous assassination attempts and plots over the years, with a warrant for his arrest in Pakistan and new threats to his life - is homesick.

"I am determined to return. I love my own country and I need Pakistan. Why they need me is another issue. But I do think they do need me. I think they are in dire straits now. The situation there has never been so bad. The government is dysfunctional, the economy is nose-diving, with people 50 percent poorer, there is political turmoil, with clashes between the legislative and judiciary, and relations with the U.S., where delicate cooperation in fighting terror remains needed, are at an all-time low. Basically, overall, we are in such a logjam I don't even know how Pakistan can get out of it."

One way forward, he suggests, is to abandon the two main parties, both of which, he charges, "have failed Pakistan time and again," and create other political forces. "We need another political party which draws the people and has international standing," says Musharraf, who, as it happens, did exactly that, launching his own political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, in June last year.

So you want to be the president of Pakistan again?

"I will try to do that. And I personally feel there is a fair chance of that happening," he says. He will miss his calmer life in exile with his wife, he admits, but feels the time has come. "A stage comes when you have seen so much in life and God has been kind and you know there are things more important than oneself. I am happy in London and I go to Dubai a lot, and then around the world giving lectures. I even have my children nearby. But Pakistan is where I belong."

We bid each other farewell. Maybe some day he would like to visit Israel, I suggest.

"Why not, why not?" he responds, ever diplomatic.

Or maybe I will visit you back in Islamabad, I offer.

"That, with pleasure. Welcome."



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