Behind the Lines: Pakistan and Israel: Much ado about nothing?

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan last week dismissed speculation that his country was moving toward the establishing of open diplomatic relations with Israel.

PAKISTAN’S PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan speaks in Islamabad earlier this year – no ties with Israel seem imminent (photo credit: REUTERS)
PAKISTAN’S PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan speaks in Islamabad earlier this year – no ties with Israel seem imminent
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan last week dismissed speculation that his country was moving toward the establishing of open diplomatic relations with Israel. Speaking at the Asian Society in New York City last Thursday, as reported by the Middle East Eye website, Khan reiterated Pakistan’s traditional stance on the issue:
“Pakistan has a very straightforward position,” the Pakistani prime minister and former cricket star said. “It was our founder of Pakistan Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah who was very clear that there has to be just settlement, a homeland for Palestinians, before Pakistan can recognize Israel.”
His remarks, according to Middle East Eye, were met with enthusiastic applause. They came amid widespread recent speculation at a possible diplomatic breakthrough between Jerusalem and Islamabad. Prominent Pakistani journalist Kamran Khan launched the rumors with a tweet on August 25, asking “Why can’t we openly debate pros cons of opening direct and overt channels of communication with the State of Israel?”
What is the background to the recent speculation, and is there a realistic chance of a breakthrough, or do Imran Khan’s remarks settle the matter in the negative?
THERE IS a school of thought in Pakistan that favors the abandonment, or at least the questioning, of Islamabad’s long rejection of formal ties with the Jewish state. Why now?
Pakistan is closely associated with the Gulf monarchies, and in particular with Saudi Arabia. The warming ties, based on pragmatic need, between Jerusalem, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are not a secret. Some in Pakistan would clearly like to see these emulated.
Some in Islamabad have noted that Pan-Islamic solidarity against Israel does not appear to afford Pakistan many tangible benefits. The Palestinian Authority retains warm relations with India. More importantly, the Arab states have continued in their efforts to increase ties with New Delhi, despite the current crisis in Kashmir.
But in spite of that school of thought within the Pakistani elite that might favor a thaw in relations with Israel, an Israeli Embassy in Islamabad is unlikely to be opening anytime soon.
This is for two reasons: first, because of the far more powerful forces in Pakistan opposing any warming of ties; and second, because significant aspects of Pakistani behavior, the nature of the Pakistani state itself and Israel’s broader strategic ties are likely to militate against any major changes at present.
Regarding the first reason, those elements of the Pakistani security establishment that are the main force in advancing the notion of ties with Israel would need to balance the fury any moves in that direction would ignite across the civilian political spectrum against the limited tangible benefits of such a move.
Pakistan has one registered Jewish resident (named Fishel Benkhald). Antisemitism of a particular and virulent kind is ubiquitous and mainstream in civil society and political and media discourse. According to a 2019 Pew poll on this subject, 74% of Pakistanis regarded Jews unfavorably; 84% of the population, according to a 2017 poll by the same organization, favored the establishment of Sharia (Islamic law) as the law of the state.
The premiership of Imran Khan has itself been the subject of antisemitic conspiracy theories centering around Khan’s former wife, Jemima Goldsmith, who is of partly Jewish ancestry.
The trial balloon that Kamran Khan’s tweet seemed to represent was the immediate object of widespread condemnation from Pakistani media and Twitter users.
So any serious moves toward establishing links with Israel would be likely to produce a furious, broad, societal reaction which would rock the legitimacy of the government promoting these.
The tangible benefits of such an effort, meanwhile, would be limited. Improved ties with Israel might conceivably open some doors in a Washington long suspicious of links between Pakistani state agencies and Islamist terrorist groups.
The Pakistani defense sector could certainly benefit from links to Israeli defense industries. But here, Israel’s burgeoning strategic partnership with India, and Indian concerns regarding Pakistan would be likely to lead to a straight Israeli choice between the two.
India is an emergent regional power with a flourishing economy. It is also a country whose deepening ties with Israel include cooperation at the highest levels of the state and extend deep into the civil societies of both countries. Especially since the Mumbai attacks of 2008, there is a shared perception of a common jihadi enemy which is itself supported in whole or in part by Pakistan.
Pakistan, meanwhile, is a state whose civil society is both traditionally and currently virulently hostile to Israel and to Jews. It is also a deeply troubled, semi-dysfunctional entity. The Israeli choice, if forced to choose between the two, would not be a hard one to predict.
There are also substantive causes for Israeli concern regarding the advisability of closer relations with Pakistan.
The legendary Pakistani nuclear proliferator Abdul Qadeer Khan actively assisted the Iranian nuclear program in its early stages. Khan admitted supplying Tehran with key components to make the centrifuges needed for enriching uranium.
Khan, who remains a hero for many in Pakistan and within its establishment, said that “since Iran was an important Muslim country, we wished Iran to acquire this technology.... Iran’s nuclear capability will neutralize Israel’s power.”
The Pakistani state system is not unified. The powerful Inter-Services Intelligence maintains its own economy and runs its own system of alliances – including with the Afghan Taliban and with the Lashkar-e-Taibe group that carried out the Mumbai attacks in 2008. Thus, any increased defense sector relationship with Islamabad would run the risk of providing knowledge or even hardware to bodies associated with Islamist and anti-Western interests.
Imran Khan visited Iran in April. The visit should dispel any simplistic notions of Pakistan forming a bulwark in a Saudi and Emirati-led Sunni bloc. Islamabad declined to take any part in the Saudi-led campaign into Yemen.
Gas-hungry Pakistan also has an interest in a possible pipeline from Iran’s enormous South Pars natural gas field. A plan for the construction of such a pipeline was abandoned only in 2011, after Pakistan was subjected to pressure from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the US.
SO BOTH Pakistani and Israeli concerns currently militate against any imminent warming of ties. Islamabad must reckon with a fiercely anti-Israel and anti-Jewish civil society and public opinion. The limited benefits, when reckoned against the cost, and Israel’s strategic alliance with India are further disincentives.
Israel, meanwhile, would need to factor in the support from elements of the Pakistani state for Islamist terrorist groups, the historic role of prominent Pakistanis in proliferation of nuclear know-how to Iran, and perhaps most importantly the divided and dysfunctional nature of the Pakistani state, in which separate interests pursue separate policies with no real accountability.
For all these reasons, the active Twitter profile of Kamran Khan notwithstanding, no formalization of ties between Israel and Pakistan appears imminent.
The writer is director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a research fellow at the Middle East Forum and at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. He is the author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars.