Thursday, June 17, 2010

The 'Gaza Fad' & Pakistan's Irrelevance

For a long time now, I’ve been meaning to write something on the flotilla crisis. But much has already been said and almost every aspect of the diplomatic impasse has been analyzed. Turkey’s role and the direction Turkish foreign policy may take as a partial result was, for example, explored by Umair here. So I’ll shift the focus to Pakistan and it's relationship with Israel in general:

Little has been said on the subject though there seems to be a sharp disconnect between two views amongst Pakistanis:

1. Given Pakistan’s immediate and long-term problems, the MidEast crisis should be irrelevant to our discourse and low on our list of priorities.
2. The Palestinians deserve backing by Muslim states because (a) they are Muslims oppressed by a non-Muslim state, and/or (b) because the crisis has led to systematic crimes and injustice without due regard for human life.

In my opinion, (b) may be plausible but the idea that a Muslim life is worth more than the life of a non-Muslim is rather flimsy and uncomfortable. In any case, the situation in Darfur, by comparison, also involves Muslims and is arguable worse than the Gaza dilemma in terms of the extremity of conflict. Yet it plays second fiddle to our concern with the Palestinian conflict.

Taking this approach, the first view seems quite attractive. Pakistan’s immediate concerns are numerous: armed conflict along the Western border, another military operation imminent, massive displacement, rising poverty levels and continued political instability and insurgencies.

Yet, through all of this, Gaza remains the preferred international crisis for many Pakistanis. It could be that the fad is an expression of concern and/or injured Muslim identity and/or a convenient moral stance.

Now I’m not suggesting that the Palestinian plight is unwarranted; indeed, Israel’s stance has, I believe, been unnecessarily forceful, at times unethical and even unlawful by rules that govern war. So while the Middle East crisis should not be totally absent from our conscience, the fact is that there is strife across the globe, most of which Pakistanis tend to ignore by comparison. There is, of course, conflict and/or strife in Myanmar, Yemen, Georgia and, most recently, Kyrgyzstan. There are, on top of that, crises across Sub-Saharan Africa and Haiti, besides Afghanistan and Iraq.

Criticism of Pakistan’s response is harsh. The Pakistani state’s response to these crises, in turn, has been adequate thus far. Pakistan remains, for example, one of the top contributors to NATO forces and has a strong presence in Africa, particularly in Sudan and Somalia. On the other hand, of course, it remains silent-lipped on the issue of Omar Al-Bashir’s indictment as ruled by the International Criminal Court.

The Stance:
But the Palestinian issue is different, too, from a political standpoint. Pakistan refuses to formally recognize the state of Israel. Despite this, Pakistani and Israeli intelligence have allegedly collaborated in the past, particularly during the covert Cold War-era operation against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

The Results:
Instead, here’s what Pakistan’s lack of formal relationship with Israel achieves:
(a) adds fuel to Israel’s strong claim that it is being cornered by Muslims states,
(b) increases the propensity of strong relations between two unfriendly states in India and Israel,
(c) consequently encourages wild conspiracy theories involving Zionist and Hindu designs on Pakistan,
(d) lowers public opinion on Pakistan abroad even further, particularly in Western states sympathetic to Israel’s policies.

The Options:
At present, Pakistan could:
(a) introduce or support U.N. resolutions calling attention to the Palestinian crisis,
(b) encourage Pakistani policy experts to contribute to independent fact-finding missions, replicating Hina Jilani's role in the Goldstone Report,
(c) theoretically pressurize its MidEast allies to alter their stance to Israel or communicate its concern for Palestine through diplomatic channels,
(d) recognize the state of Israel formally at a time when the political atmosphere with respect to Israel is calmer (Musharraf termed it “political suicide,” and while he may be overestimating the public’s response, it’s improbable that the move would go down well with Pakistan’s allies and most political parties).
(e) Alternatively, encourage a détente by establishing informal communication with Israel, as they did in 2005. In doing so, Pakistan could strengthen its role as a liaison for the Israelis in the absence of the Turks while attaining for itself more leverage as an international arbiter and, for those who subscribe to the idea of a Muslim collective, a strong spokesman for the Muslim world.

In the ideal situation, Pakistan’s continued refusal to recognize Israel formally should serve as a strong indication of its disapproval of Israel’s stance on Palestine. As it stands, it’s not much of a statement. It’s a hopeless stance: for almost all practical purposes, Pakistan — or, for that matter, Pakistani opinion — remains largely irrelevant.


  1. Nicely written. I think, the recognition of Israel, or at least engagement with it, has been a much-touted policy within liberal circles in Pakistan. Just a few things that we need to be mindful of. Firstly, to draw dichotomous and exclusivist boundaries between the state (the institutions that dictate policy) and society (the masses in general) is incorrect at most levels. State-policy, or at least the operational parameters in which policy can be made and executed are dictated by societal concerns. This holds more for democratic governments, but is also true for dictatorial regimes.

    Take the case for Kalabagh dam for instance. Every dictator who has come into power, could have theoretically constructed the dam - assuming said dictator is working for a perceived national interest. But they haven't been able to do so because it remains a deep social fracture of sorts. The same goes for Israel-Pakistan relations (or non-relations). The domestic costs of pursuing engagement are much higher than the perceived benefits.

    Pakistani (or specifically Punjabi) society buys into the entire clash-of-civilization thesis, and it buys a cheap copy of it. Like you said, this cheaper copy is selective when it comes to various crisis, too heavily focused on the plight of 'Muslims' in the Middle East or Kashmir.

    Is a defused relationship with israel desirable? Probably. Is it possible? Not at all. Well not unless there's a drastic alteration of the public imagination. Which i personally don't see happening.

    Oh and on a side-note, a certain Brigadier Zia-ul-Haq once killed 5000 palestinians in the Black September crisis in Jordan. haha.

  2. @ Anon:

    Of course public opinion matters but I think that, in this particular instance, we — and politicians — tend to overestimate it far too much. That's probably because the issue is in large part a convenient moral stance. The Israel flag-burners and the kids with the 'Free Gaza' Facebook profile pictures are not a significant portion of the constituency; certainly not enough to dissuade ministerial-level action. In any case, the 2005 option of informal discussions allows the government to sidestep those concerns.

    And yes, it certainly isn't possible at present, on the back of the flotilla crisis. But the furor will die down and the political atmosphere will become more desirable for this issue.

    In any case, there are ways to go about it that would make the move politically palatable: have a politician whose constituency is unlikely to radically oppose Pakistan-Israel relations propose the move, frame it as "a unique opportunity for Pakistan to communicate its concerns over Palestine" or even "a bold move by Pakistan on behalf of the Muslim world." In fact, while we are at it, why not propose this foreign policy move on the back of a headline-grabbing domestic scheme to reduce poverty in order to minimize its political impact.

    At the end of the day, I feel that the views of Pakistan's Middle East allies will present a greater barrier than public opinion on the ground. Again, option (e) probably won't elicit a strong response in that territory either.

  3. Love the title.

    What would the title be if you lived in Morocco?


  4. Just to give you an idea of what they will be facing:

    In 2005, The News published an interview with the Israeli Foreign Minister. The next day its offices were ransacked by an angry mob.