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(First published on June 22, 2019)

Recently a video has gone viral in Pakistan claiming to feature the opening of the Saudi Embassy in Israel. Upon closer scrutiny, you realise that this at best is the footage of some private event or initiative not an official one, if not something staged for propaganda purposes only. In this age of deep fakes it is no longer possible to separate truth from propaganda without the help of fairly advanced software. But even if this is a creative spin on reality, there is no denying that Israel and the Arab world especially Saudi Arabia have moved closer in the face of a perceived or real challenge posed by Iran. At the end of his Saudi visit American President Donald Trump, in an unprecedented move, flew directly to Israel. Then came the Israeli Premier’s visit to Oman. And now we hear that Israel is sending its delegation to Bahrain for the conference on Israel-Palestine peace process. Many Muslim countries have already recognised Israel.

This takes me back to a question that was asked in a Foreign Office briefing during PML-N’s rule. While a fulltime foreign minister was missing, Sartaj Aziz had recently been made the prime minister’s adviser on foreign affairs and national security. It was in those days that many journalists were invited to participate in background briefings. In the Q&A session one senior journalist asked if Pakistan would prefer to follow suit if the Saudi Kingdom established diplomatic relations with Israel. The answer is not important because it was neither detailed nor impressive or creative. But the question was. My interaction was primarily occupied with Pakistan’s likely position in two dangerous scenarios: a possible showdown between Iran and the rest, and in the eventuality of a cold war between China and the US. But I did try to agitate the Israeli point too. Given that this interaction was taking place a few years ago when none of these challenges were as clearly visible on the spectrum, you can assess the quality of brain trust that exists within Pakistani thinking community. None of these questions were properly answered which also shows the PML-N’s approach to media management: Call a background briefing, don’t volunteer any significant information and air the selected excerpts from the talk of your office bearer on television. Hence, basically an exercise in futility.

But the Israeli question remains unanswered. And by any standard it is a big one. Ten years ago, in a column titled ‘Should Pakistan recognise Israel?’, I had pointed out how the Israeli ambassador to New Delhi, Mark Sofar, had responded to Indian attempts to draw parallels between Israel’s surgical strikes against Hezbollah and Indian desire to do something similar on Pakistani soil in the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai attack (yup, it is an old Indian disease). In a guarded statement after the attack which had killed Israeli citizens too, Mr Sofar said, “It will be wrong to take a response of one part of the world to extrapolate immediately to somewhere else.” Commenting on Pakistan he further stated, “We have had from time-to-time contacts, here and there with Musharraf, who met, and the previous Pakistani foreign minister who met the previous Israeli foreign minister, but to talk of any meaningful relationship between Israel and Pakistan is really way off the ball and nowhere near where we are… Israel had a lot to offer to Pakistan… the decision is in its court and it clearly has decided to go elsewhere.” That elsewhere would be to be sensitive to the prevailing sentiment in the Arab world at the time. This sentiment however is visibly changing.

So, what is Pakistan to do? About time we have had a cost benefit analysis. So, ten years after I had written that piece, I opened my realpolitik workbook again to assess the situation. Let us first look at the cost.

There is no gainsaying that a resolute opposition to the idea exists in Pakistan and it can cause a blowback. This blowback can be political, militant or both. The political aspect is interesting because even without the Israeli question there is no dearth of aggrieved parties in the system. Could political dissent find a common cause in the shape of resistance to recognising Israel? Traditionally it is assumed that the right-wing parties and religious groups either draw support from the Arab world or Iran. And since India really enjoys Pakistan’s misery lately it has taken to sponsoring some of the fringe religious groups too. The Arab angle will soon be out of the picture. And since a lot of nations openly hostile to Iran are moving closer to Israel, Pakistan which seeks to maintain healthy relations with Iran despite its close ties with Arab world may be useful to Tehran if it has direct contact with the Jewish state. Hence it can also be persuaded not to stoke dissent on the matter. Israel can rein in India. Already-divided opposition parties and religious groups may consequently not find significant external support in the matter. A militant blowback is possible and despite our getting used to such threats the presence of an Israeli ambassador may prove to be a logistic nightmare.

But here is the problem. Since India established formal relations with Israel in 1992, its image, economy and strength has only gone up. Its diaspora has desperately latched on to the foreign policy of a state where Pakistan has no access. Consequently, Nikki Haley already has Sheldon Adelson family’s endorsement for 2024 presidential run in the US. When India seeks to acquire lethal weapons and western nations, even Russia, show reluctance to sell their hardware to New Delhi, it turns to Israel and gets what it wants. Then Pakistan and Israel have more in common than with the Arab world. Both ideological states aspire to be modern democracies and possess nuclear weapons. Both face existential threats and have seen the consequences of radicalisation of their respective ideologies. Two former premiers Yitzhak Rabin and Benazir Bhutto were killed by such radicals.

Myanmar killed and expelled countless Rohingyas and we still have diplomatic ties with it. The foundation stone of our ideology, the two-nation theory, is about India and we still try to improve relations with New Delhi despite fighting many wars. Why is a question of establishing ties with Israel summarily dismissed by our national discourse then? This is the only space where we have some room for proactive policymaking left. You can either remain prisoners of expediency and opportunism or you can break free and grow. Let us at least have a serious and dispassionate debate on the matter.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 22nd, 2019.

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