Pakistan's Israel Gamble
Jun 18, 2003
On the eve of his trip to the United States and Europe, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has hinted at the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. Such a move potentially could pave the way for normalization of relations between Israel and the greater Muslim world. However, several structural problems will impede any attempts by Islamabad to follow through, given the negative impact that this strategy would have both on the domestic front and within the wider Muslim community. Instead, the Musharraf regime appears to be trying to extract economic benefits from the United States and Europe in exchange for possible recognition of Israel.
A few hours before embarking on a two-week trip to the United States, Britain, France and Germany, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said during an interview with GEO TV that Islamabad would consider establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. Media reports already have been rife with speculation about the possibility of such a move, following earlier statements by Israel's ambassador to the European Union, Oded Eran, who said that the Jewish state seeks diplomatic recognition from Islamic nations, including Pakistan.
Although it would not be impossible for Pakistan to normalize ties with Israel, there are several structural barriers that make this a distant possibility at best. These include both the tough opposition within Pakistan, where there is a growing Islamist constituency, and the stance of the wider Arab and Muslim world. Nevertheless, the prospects for geopolitical concessions from Washington and European states is too enticing for Musharraf to pass up: At this juncture, Islamabad has an excellent opportunity to obtain a quid pro quo arrangement with Washington. By floating the idea of diplomatic recognition for Israel, Pakistan stands to gain a special status with Washington that is worth more than mere cash or military aid.
The sudden optimism over the possibility of Pakistani-Israeli relations emerged amid talk of the U.S.-backed peace plan for the Middle East. However, that peace plan appears to have hit a snag, dimming the prospects for rapprochement between Israel and Arab states. Musharraf has made Pakistan's recognition of Israel contingent upon achievement of the peace plan's goals -- and although Islamabad maintains an independent policy, officials do not want it to conflict with that of Pakistan's Arab and Muslim allies.
In addition, recognition of Israel likely would have detrimental effects on Musharraf's standing at home. He already faces intense political pressure over the proposed Legal Framework Order -- a package of constitutional amendments that would give him sweeping new powers -- and his dual titles as president and chief of army staff. And the opposition, particularly the growing Islamist constituency, accuses him of subservience to the United States, since Islamabad has cooperated with Washington's war against Islamist militant groups.
That said, why would Musharraf hint at offering normalized relations to Israel?
In recent days, the Pakistani leader repeatedly has said he wants Washington to do more for his country, in light of its cooperation with the war against terrorism. By hinting at possible recognition for Israel, Pakistan might be seeking to win special economic status with the United States. In other words, normalizing relations with Israel likely is being used as a bargaining counter in negotiating a new regional and global role for Pakistan.
It is noteworthy that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- who has personal ties to Musharraf and whose country long ago established normal relations with Israel -- visited Pakistan prior to Musharraf's departure for the West. It is possible that Turkey might be acting as a mediator between Pakistan and Israel.
However, even if that is the case, Pakistan's problem in selling any normalization of relations with Israel to the Muslim and Arab worlds remains.
Judging from the carefully worded statements coming not just from Musharraf but also from Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali and Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, it appears that Islamabad is merely testing the waters. Following Musharraf's comments to GEO TV, reporters sought clarification from both Jamali and Ahmed, and subsequent headlines stated that the top two civilian government officials denied that Pakistan would extend diplomatic ties to Israel. Yet a closer look at their actual statements suggests that they have not actually issued categorical denials.
Instead, Jamali has said that "any Pakistani, mind my words, any Pakistani will never favor any such thing, which would erode the interests of the country," English-language daily The Nation reported, adding that such decisions must not and would not be made without taking the whole nation and Parliament into confidence. When asked for his comments, Ahmed deferred to the prime minister's remarks, noting that the opposition at this time should leave the "politics of egoism and rigidity" behind.
None of these statements actually read as a denial of Musharraf's statements, but in fact appear to signal to the Pakistani people and political opposition that they should keep an open mind on the topic of Islamabad's Israel policy.
If the government should move to extend diplomatic relations to Israel, it will have to sell the idea domestically under the government's "Pakistan first" slogan -- saying that the move was made in the country's best interests. The "Pakistan first" motto advances the idea of policies that benefit Pakistan as opposed to promoting pan-Islamic issues. The Islamist opposition, on the other hand, has called for the government to adopt a pan-Islamic stance, particularly on policies that touch on Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinians.
Musharraf also could point out -- as he has before -- that Israel delivers massive military assistance to Pakistan's archrival, India. That growing security relationship could be used as a lever to get the Pakistani public on board with a new Israel policy. And the government could argue that some Arab and Muslim states -- notably Egypt, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, Turkey and certain Persian Gulf states -- appear to be normalizing their relationships with Israel. Officials could argue that, after all, Pakistan never has had a direct conflict with Israel. In fact, Musharraf already has said that Pakistan maintains relations with India -- against which it has fought three wars -- so why not with Israel?
Given that India is a key variable in Islamabad's foreign policy calculus, the Musharraf government wants to strengthen Pakistan's regional and global position -- and recognition of Israel is an excellent opportunity to obtain a quid pro quo arrangement with Washington. In return, Pakistan would stand to gain much more than cash or military hardware -- two commodities it can acquire through less dramatic measures. Rather, knowing the premium that the Bush administration has placed on a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement, Islamabad is offering Washington what it badly needs. Pakistan, a key Muslim state and the only nuclear Muslim power, could facilitate and accelerate the path toward a general recognition movement, particularly in the Arab world.
However, a catch-22 still applies.
To capitalize on Pakistan's trial balloon, Washington must be able to use it
to advance its goals of a broader peace in the Middle East. At the same time,
Musharraf has made any policy of recognition for Israel contingent upon the
success of Washington's peace plan. With rejectionists like Hamas, Palestinian
Islamic Jihad and their secular counterparts threatening the plan, it remains
to be seen how a Palestinian state can be brought into being -- and that makes
it exceedingly difficult for Musharraf to move forward with his proposal.