Pakistan’s foreign policy has been incoherent and inconsistent since its inception. It has suffered from a chasm between policy and strategy, xenophobic tendencies, domestic politics interfering negatively with the foreign policy process, and vice versa – including the unsettling influence of the military on civilian politics and the outsize impact of religious groups.
Policy-makers, rather than focusing on the policy process and the outcomes, serially succumb to socio-religious pressures, intensifying policy volatility, and that volatility, read as vulnerability, opens Pakistan up to manipulation by stronger world powers.
The result is that on the issues that Pakistan flags as central to its foreign policy principles – the Kashmir issue and the rights of Palestinians – Islamabad’s achievements have been barely discernible.
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While Pakistan ventured into the marshlands of jihad – a tryst with international terrorism which began in the 1980s and brought home a perpetual religious radicalization, sectarianism and Kalashnikov culture that continues to this day – India was laying the ground for diplomatic ties with Israel, a process which sped up after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Around the same time, unrest began in Kashmir, and Pakistan became involved with a new aspect of the on/off conflict with India. Militants were strategically rerouted to Kashmir to keep India at bay.
In the 2000s, the second Palestinian intifada and a surge of terrorism in Pakistan coincided. Pakistan was pre-occupied; its engagement with the Israel-Palestine conflict was muted.
Today, India and Israel have celebrated more than a quarter-century of official ties. Pakistan, which focused its domestic energies and diplomatic capital in fighting for the right to Palestinian and Kashmiri self-determination, won nothing. The state of Jammu and Kashmir has been annexed by India. Israel is on the verge of annexing the West Bank.
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All this begs the question: What has Pakistan achieved from its policy of a perpetual boycott of Israel? Doesn’t logic demand a reassessment, if there's nothing to show after all these decades of resentment and negligence? What about venturing out of a stagnant policy pool and into fresher waters?
The choice of metaphor is not accidental. It is in the field of water, more specifically, water scarcity, that Pakistan’s obstinacy towards relations with Israel seem the most irresponsible. It would even be possible to say it threatens Pakistanis’ lives.
Currently, Pakistan is facing an acute water shortage, and it may become a water stress country in 2025, when (with an annual per capita availability of less than 1,000 cubic meters) fresh water becomes critically scarce. The International Monetary Fund ranks Pakistan as third among countries facing an acute water shortage. According to the World Economic Forum report, the biggest threat Pakistan faces, along with much of South Asia, is the water crisis.
Often unaware about the rate that groundwater is being depleted, and by what that will means for their livelihoods, Pakistanis have so far shown little concern about how they’re utilizing water.
The Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources has also warned about the gravity of the situation, reporting that Pakistan first touched the water stress line in 1990, crossed the water scarcity line in 2005, and is at the risk of a 30 million acre feet shortage in the years to come. Experts calculate that Pakistan will be the most water-stressed country in the region by 2040.
The implications for Pakistan’s economy when there is not enough water are dire for its 212 million people, and insufficiently recognized within the country. Nearly 20 percent of GDP is dependent on agriculture. Around 40 percent of the entire labor force is engaged in agriculture, including a full 67 percent of all working women.
But Pakistan’s agriculture sector is infamously inefficient in regards to water use: 90 percent of the country’s water sources are directed towards farming, but a quarter of that water is lost through leaks and other irrigation failures.
So how is water scarcity and Pakistan's foreign policy towards Israel connected?
One of the key factors that have saved Israel, a country located in the relatively arid Middle East, from water scarcity and stress has been its development and adoption of technology in agriculture, based on the rigorous utilization of every drop of available water.
Those advances range from national projects like desalination (converting seawater into drinking water), to state-assisted industries like agritech, to private sector enterprises specializing in drip irrigation, sprinkler irrigation system, recycling graywater and advanced fertilization mechanisms and machinery.
Israel has introduced bio-pesticides, bio-fertilizers, and AI in agriculture, including robots and sensors – to the extent that plants may soon be able to "talk" to humans to convey their requirements. Israel currently recycles 86 percent of its water, by far the highest rate in the world. Israel now manages to not only fulfil its own water demand but also exports its expertise to more than 150 countries, including some in the Arab world – except Palestine, which suffers from severe shortages.
Had Pakistan been able to access this panoply of technologies and best practice, agriculture could have increased its share of Pakistan’s GDP from 26 to 36-40 percent – simply by increased production and yield.
If Pakistan could swallow using Israeli weapons during the 1980s Operation Cyclone, the CIA program arming the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan, why can't it use Israeli technology for constructive purposes? Pakistan urgently needs assistance from agricultural scientists and experts to overhaul its existing outdated agricultural and water management systems, before it’s too late.
But is it really feasible to divorce politics from development aid and cooperation?
Israel is almost self-sufficient in terms of agricultural products. Even with very little territory, it has always been a net exporter to countries with enormous areas under cultivation, such as India. Most of its agricultural machinery is produced domestically and not imported from China.
Being based in Beijing, I've observed that in all the major universities and research institutes, there are Chinese-Israeli Cooperation Centers of Excellence in Biotechnology, agricultural development and innovation. China is Israel's third-largest trading partner globally and its largest trading partner in Asia. And China is one of the few countries in the world to have concurrently maintained warm relations with Israel, Palestine, and the Muslim world at large.
As Pakistan lags behind in agricultural and scientific advancements, particularly in water and irrigation, it is high time for both countries to extend an olive branch to each other. As a country, we ses ourselves in a permanent competition with India – but India is already laps ahead in development cooperation with Israel. Pakistan has a lot of catching up to do.
Pakistan could also learn from Israel how to encourage civil society’s enthusiasm and respect for political and scientific realities. Israel celebrates its scientists and Nobel laureates. We call ours “foreign-funded agents.” Exactly this kind of conspiratorial disrespect led to the exile of Dr. Abdus Salam, the first and only Pakistani scientist to win the Nobel Prize.
China, our all-weather friend, invests in extensive agricultural research joint-ventures on with India. In Pakistan, Beijing’s priorities are infrastructure projects and luxury resorts in Pakistan. Is that difference sdue to radically different domestic priorities in India and Pakistan, or because a superpower invests according to the worth of its target states are?
Until now, Pakistan has failed to be anything more than a 'frontline ally in the war against terror' or a 'massive construction site': it simply has not insisted on a focus on scientific and agricultural development. But there must be a better way.
Pakistan's exclusionary foreign policy towards Israel is based on its wrongdoings against Palestinian Muslims. But if that's the real reason, then why hasn't Pakistan boycotted America for its wrongdoings against the Muslim populations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, arming Israel against Hezbollah and PLO; why has it not boycotted India over wrongdoings in Gujarat and Kashmir?
If Egypt and Jordan, neighboring Muslim-majority states who’ve been directly affected countries by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, can make politico-economic deals with Israel for the good of their peoples, why can't Pakistan, which is far removed from the conflict?
Pakistan could do much more for the Palestinians if it does first what it needs to do for Pakistanis.
Sumeera Asghar Roy is a PhD candidate at the China Agricultural University in Beijing. She holds a master's degree in Horticulture from the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, Pakistan. She has represented Pakistan at many global events relating to agriculture, and her work has been published in The Nation, Policy Forum, Pakistan Today and other outlets
Hassan F. Virk is a Lecturer of Politics and Development Studies at the School of Integrated Social Sciences and Research Associate at the Center for Security, Strategy, and Policy Research, University of Lahore