Opinion |

Pakistan Recognizing Israel Is Dirty Politics. But It's Legitimate

Normalization with Israel doesn’t mean relinquishing support for the Palestinians. But it would be the kind of political pragmatism that Pakistan, now more than ever, needs

Imran Jan
Imran Jan
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Supporters of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) protest the UAE – Israel normalization deal. Karachi, Pakistan, August 16, 2020
Supporters of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) protest the UAE – Israel normalization deal. Karachi, Pakistan, August 16, 2020.Credit: AKHTAR SOOMRO/ REUTERS
Imran Jan
Imran Jan

As more and more Muslim-majority states, particularly in the Middle East, formalize or consider full relations with Israel, there has been increasing chatter about Pakistan joining them.

Pakistan is in an awkward situation. It is under pressure to move towards recognition but, at the same time, it has, since its founding, strongly supported the national rights of the Palestinians.

There is, though, a path for Pakistan that would allow it, as a self-defined Islamic republic whose passports declare its validity for every country except Israel, to retain solidarity with the Palestinian cause and establish some form of relations with Israel.

To understand this path, it’s worth examining a term used by former Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto: "Reconciliation." In her posthumous book, "Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and West,"

Bhutto laid out a playbook for an open, pluralistic but proudly distinctive Islam that had no reason to be in collision with the West. Islam didn’t have to adopt Western values to find common ground with the West, Benazir’s "reconciliation" entered everyday political and media discourse in Pakistan.

A supporter of an Islamist political party waves a Palestinian flag at a Lahore rally against Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. December 13, 2017.Credit: K.M. Chaudary / AP

In the case of relations with Israel, I think there is a better case for "compartmentalization," rather than reconciliation.

Compartmentalization would mean that while Pakistan should establish ties with Israel, Islamabad does not need to adopt a wholesale policy of abandoning the Palestinian cause as well. Having ties with Israel and supporting the Palestinians do not have to be mutually exclusive phenomena.

Such a compartmentalization would benefit Pakistan and may be even work better toward the Palestinian cause: the years of stalemate and status quo have not achieved any positive change in the fate of Palestine. Last time I checked, that was the textbook definition of foolishness; to try to use the same methods while expecting different results.

There is also the issue of relations with the United States. Whereas the U.S. almost always comes to Israel’s immediate defense at the United Nations, armed with its veto, the U.S. is now the prime broker going from one Arab or Muslim-majority country to the next to pave the way for normalization with Israel. And as long as it’s dangling lucrative offers for normalization, the benefits might very well outweigh the cost of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Truth be told, nobody has benefited from the stalemate. Israel has not been able to subjugate those people whose land it acquired and Palestine is still just a distant dream, more like a nightmare.

But the Pakistan-Israel story is really about national interests. Pakistan is a country surrounded by enemies or opponents, sandwiched between India and Afghanistan. That is in fact a point of similarity to (pre-normalization) Israel, one of several. Pakistan faces a variety of threats from a variety of states, particularly India.

Here there is another obstacle. Pakistan has consistently argued for the equation of India’s occupation of Kashmir and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. That equation, and its advocacy of a just resolution for both, is a linchpin of its public diplomacy. If Pakistan gravitates towards Israel, despite its ongoing occupation, Islamabad will be wide open to charges of hypocrisy. Can it continue bashing India for occupying Kashmir and yet befriend Israel?

Social media image against normalization with Israel, and backing Pakistan's longstanding equation of India’s occupation of Kashmir and Israel’s occupation of the West BankCredit: Twitter

The answer is yes. Pakistan has formal relations with India – the very country that occupies Kashmir – without abandoning the Kashmir cause. Furthermore, sustaining diplomatic relations, despite deep disagreements and even conflict, is a common practice of nation states all around us and around the world.

The United States, despite bashing and threatening Iran, indulged in talking to Iran about a peaceful way of checking Iran’s nuclear activities. Iran sat down across the table with what it always labels as "the Great Satan."

The Taliban and the United States realized that talks would eventually achieve what almost two decades of active fight in the battlefield did not. Both sides are talking in Qatar and whacking each other on the battlefield in Afghanistan at the same time, until the Doha process overwhelms Kabul.

Bangladesh represents the breaking in two of Pakistan. Yet Pakistan recognized Bangladesh as a legitimate state.

Indian policemen chase Kashmiri protesters during clashes after government forces killed two suspected rebels in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir. October 12, 2020.Credit: Mukhtar Khan,AP

There is another key element to the normalization debate for Pakistan: its overseas citizens.

Overseas Pakistanis are a significant community with significant political clout. Pakistan has the sixth largest diaspora in the world, estimated at 7.6 million people, compared to national population of 220 million. In 2019-2020 alone, they sent back to Pakistan $21.84 billion in remittances. That figure represents only the official numbers, which might very well be a fraction of the real figure.

And overseas Pakistanis can vote in national elections. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has attached great importance to overseas Pakistanis because they play a significant role in the economic, political, and social life of Pakistan.

So it was a big deal when so many Pakistanis living abroad went berserk when news reports surfaced of a secret Israeli trip to Pakistan, framed as a preamble to establishing ties between the two states. They see themselves as guardians of the "true" Pakistan, demonstrating a more fervent nationalism than their peers in the home country.

But here, the charge of hypocrisy is also relevant – this time for the expats themselves. The Pakistani diaspora has gone abroad in search of a better income and better education, and they’ve gone to countries that certainly do recognize Israel as a legitimate state.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during a joint news conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan. November 19, 2020.Credit: Rahmat Gul,AP

Many of these overseas Pakistanis, myself included, have no qualms swearing allegiance to our new homes; countries that do recognize Israel. Yet many of those Pakistanis abroad go ballistic when Pakistan shows even a hint of doing the same.

If they can pledge allegiance to the flag and the constitution of an Israel-recognizing country for their personal benefits, then why can’t they think the same for the very country on whose passports they travelled abroad in the first place?

There is no logic to demanding Pakistan to act with more ideological purity than the standards they set for themselves. If they can compartmentalize by living in America, financing their car using Shariah-compliant zero-interest financial plans and sending their children to Islamic schools, then let Pakistan use some of that compartmentalization too.

I have my own critiques about Israel, but I also realize that Pakistan cannot afford to have enemies. It needs allies. This is global politics. It is dirty and selfish. Normalization with Israel is what political pragmatism means and that is what Pakistan, now more than ever, needs.

Imran Jan is a political analyst and Pakistani American based in Houston who has taught at a number of U.S. colleges. Twitter @Imran_Jan

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