Factors Involved in the Normalization of Relations Between Pakistan and Israel

Posted in Broader Middle East | 09-Jun-05 | Author: P.R. Kumaraswamy

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Not many Muslim leaders would concur with, let alone use, the following glowing description of Israel's controversial Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: "A great soldier and a courageous leader." But that is exactly what President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan called Sharon. These words, spoken to the German weekly Der Spiegel, were more than one general admiring another. Coming from a leader whose country is yet to formally recognize the Jewish State, such a public admiration for Sharon is yet another indication of Pakistan's overtures toward Israel.

This, however, was not the first time when Musharraf made pro-Israeli noises in public. At periodic intervals, various political leaders, especially Musharraf, have been hinting that Pakistan has been re-examining its policy toward Israel and that the issue should be examined with an "open mind." Most of the pro-Israeli statements made by Musharraf have been said either directly to the Western audience or on the eve of his meeting with American leaders.

The absence of any bilateral animosity has also promoted the rationality of a new approach. For example, in June 2003, the General reminded the Pakistanis: "We should not overreact on this issue. We should give serious consideration. It is a very sensitive issue. We fought three wars with India but still had diplomatic relations," he said, adding that Pakistan never fought a war against Israel.

As in the past, the Pakistani leadership proclaimed its untainted support for the Palestinian cause and often feels comfortable in denouncing the Zionist enemy's newly found friendship with India. In the initial years, Indo-Israeli normalization of relations in January 1992 intensified media hype in Pakistan over Hindu-Jewish, Indo-Israeli and even Brahmin-Zionist conspiracies. This reached its crescendo during Sharon's state visit to India in September 2003.

The emerging military-security cooperation between India and Israel have attracted widespread attention and concern in Pakistan leading to the portrayal of Indo-Israeli relations as a conspiracy not only against Pakistan but also against the larger Islamic world. Prolonged public silence in Israel has only facilitated the image that Pakistan is virulently anti-Israeli if not anti-Jewish. At one time, Pakistani leaders launched an unsuccessful campaign in the U.S. to scuttle the billion dollar Phalcon spy plane deal between India and Israel. [See: "Indo-Israeli Ties: The Post-Arafat Shift"]

Common History

Despite public rhetoric, both countries share a common historical legacy and contours of state-building as both were primarily conceived as a homeland for religious-national minorities; Israel for the Jews and Pakistan for the Muslims of the British India. While secular leadership led their nationalist struggle, before long religious elements gradually found it prudent to be part of the state that they vehemently opposed in the beginning. At regular intervals, Pakistani politicians have accused their political opponents of being Israeli or Zionist agents and anti-Israeli rhetoric has been an integral part of many election campaigns in Pakistan.

Are Israel and Pakistan strange bedfellows bound together by a marriage of convenience? Or are they natural allies who have more issues in common than meets the eye? Available data and archival materials indicate that despite the public postures, from the beginning Israel and Pakistan have been dealing with one another. Some of these contacts date back to the pre-state and pre-partition era. On a number of issues, both countries worked in tandem. Since the late-1940s, every major Pakistani leader had met, interacted or sought a modus vivindi with the Jewish state.

If Pakistan's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, received the formal Israeli request for diplomatic recognition, its first Foreign Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan sang a different tune shortly after assuming office. Not long ago, he vehemently opposed the partition of Palestine as an injustice to the Arab and an illegal act. Once Israel came into being, he began to adopt a realistic position and urged the Arabs to be pragmatic.

At one time there was even speculation that Pakistan would preempt India and recognize Israel, if only to embarrass its neighbor. Khan's statement in Cairo for a reappraisal of the Arab position toward Israel led to a high level rendezvous in April 1952 between him and Abba Eban, the then Israeli Ambassador in Washington. This was followed by another meeting the following January.

During the Suez crisis Pakistan remained the major third world country to adopt a pro-Western position, opposing Egyptian leader Abdel Nasser. In private discussions, Pakistani diplomats expressed their happiness at the treatment meted out to Nasser. In one such incident, Pakistani High Commissioner in Ottawa Mirza Osman Ali congratulated his Israeli counterpart for the "wonderful show your splendid little army put up in beating the Egyptian" and regretted that but for the British and French intervention, Israeli troops would have marched into Cairo.

Nasser's friendship with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his audacity in stating that Kashmir was as important to India as Sinai was for Egypt did not find favors in Pakistan. If its support for Egypt was nothing more than verbal during the June war, Pakistani pilots were actively helping Syria during the October war of 1973.

General Zia ul-Haq, who came to power in 1977, went a step further. While in office, he repeatedly presented himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause, but as brigadier he headed a Pakistani contingent that was involved in the Jordanian crackdown of the Palestinians in what was subsequently known as the Black September massacre of 1970. Naturally, he was duly decorated by King Hussein for his "services" to the Hashemite Kingdom. Not satisfied with comparing the position of Islam in Pakistan to Zionism in Israel, at one time he urged the Palestine Liberation Organization to recognize the Jewish State.

However, his most valuable contribution to Israel was to come at the 1984 summit meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (O.I.C.) in Casablanca. President Anwar Sadat's decision to break ranks with the Arab world and seek a separate peace with Israel through the Camp David Accords led to Egypt's isolation in the Middle East. Before long Egypt, the founding member, was suspended from the Arab League and the League's headquarters was transferred to Tunis. This move significantly undermined American interests and peace efforts in the region and thereby provided an avenue for Zia. During the O.I.C. Summit, he successfully argued that Egypt's isolation served neither Islamic interests nor the Palestinian cause and skillfully managed to secure its re-entry into the Islamic fold. This move gradually led to Cairo's readmission into the Arab League.

Conflicting Pressures

The end of the Cold War, Indo-Israeli normalization and the reintroduction of democracy in Pakistan resulted in a more transparent approach toward Israel. Even though Pakistan did not reverse its traditional position, normalization came out of the closet and was vociferously debated in public. While in office, both Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif have indicated their willingness to deal with Israel and argued that under certain conditions Pakistan would be willing to reverse its policy and seek diplomatic ties with Israel.

Bhutto's efforts in August 1994 to visit the newly installed Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip without dealing with Israel ended in a fiasco with her Israeli counterpart Yitzhak Rabin admonishing her saying, "the lady from Pakistan should be taught some manners." Yet, a few weeks later, Pakistan was present at the ceremony marking the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty in the Arava.

Meanwhile, the Indian decision in January 1992 to establish diplomatic ties with Israel only intensified Pakistani efforts. Some media commentators and even the clergy attributed the Indo-Israeli security-related cooperation to Israeli displeasure with Pakistan over the absence of relations. Conscious of the diplomatic importance of such statements, the Pakistani ambassador in Washington, Abida Hussain, publicly spoke in favor of a dialogue with Israel; indeed, her colleague in the U.N. mission even attended a diplomatic reception hosted by the Israeli ambassador in New York.

Following the assassination of Rabin in November 1995, Pakistan issued an official statement condemning "all acts of terrorism" with Bhutto, drawing a parallel between Rabin's assassination and the hanging of her father by Zia. In an interview to the leading Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot in January 1996, she attributed Pakistan's ability to modify its position toward Israel to the progress in the peace process and the position of leading Arab countries. She even thanked Israel and its friends in the U.S. for their help in the supply of F-16 fighters to Pakistan and to the partial lifting of the nuclear proliferation related arms embargo imposed on Islamabad.

When Pakistan crossed the nuclear threshold in May 1998, it led to different tones in both countries as they felt the need to reach an understanding over the nuclear question and avoid unnecessary threats and crises. Israel was assured that Pakistan was a responsible player and that it would not transfer nuclear technology or weapons to any "third country or entity." The frequent use of the expression "entity" is seen in Israel as an attempt to placate its fears about a future Palestinian entity. Such assurances were given in private and through the American interlocutors. Pakistani ministers even appeared on Israeli television to reiterate their country's commitment against the transfer of nuclear weapons.

For its part, Israel began to see nuclear Pakistan primarily in the South Asian context and assured that it had no inimical intensions toward Pakistan. Leading Israeli strategists were confident that Pakistan would not contribute to nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and argued that the Pakistani bomb is at best a Chinese bomb and not an Islamic one. During this period, Israeli media even disclosed that despite the absence of formal diplomatic recognition, at the height of the Soviet opposition of Afghanistan Israel did maintain a "permanent representation" in Islamabad.

Notwithstanding the prolonged public opposition and rhetoric, Pakistani leaders have adopted a pragmatic position toward Israel. So long as the peace process was on course, Pakistan had an incentive for good relations, especially as it sees the Middle East as its prime constituency. Israel also occupies an important place in Pakistan's relations with the U.S. as it often benefited from its approaches toward Israel. Furthermore, the prolonged Israeli apprehension over its nuclear program is an additional incentive of Pakistan to reach some broad understanding with the Jewish State, even if full normalization is not imminent.


The death of Yasser Arafat and the lessening of Israeli-Palestinian violence offer an opportunity for Pakistan. Even Musharraf's statement about Sharon came days after the visit of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Pakistan and his invitation for a high-level Pakistani delegation to the areas under the control of the Palestinian National Authority. Going by the examples of other countries, such a visit would have to be "coordinated" with Israel.

At the same time, one cannot underestimate the domestic public opinion which is opposed and even hostile toward Israel. Despite some calls for a reprisal, on the whole the conservative religious establishment has been in the forefront of the anti-Israeli rhetoric. In recent years, Pakistan periodically witnessed more anti-Israeli rallies than most of the Arab countries.

Since Indo-Israeli normalization, Pakistan has been making pro-Israeli noises for a long time. Periodic public statements about the need for a re-examination of ties and the absence of any concrete move in this direction underscore the prime dilemma facing Pakistan. While the public response is anti-Israeli, harsh political calculations demand accommodation with Israel.

The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of [email protected]. All comments should be directed to [email protected].