The ongoing conflict between Palestine and Israel has wrought significant changes overnight, both for Pakistan and the rest of the world.
Just a mere four days ago, the possibility of Saudi Arabia forging diplomatic ties with Israel appeared quite plausible. Speculation even arose that Pakistan, despite its historical stance on the Israel-Palestine issue, might follow suit. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the Western alliance led by the United States grappled with the supply of ammunition and other financial and military support to bolster Ukraine's counteroffensive against Russia. To the east, concerns persisted regarding a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
Amidst this global turmoil, Pakistan faces its own set of challenges, primarily economic stress and political unrest. Additionally, terror attacks marred the commemoration of 12 Rabiul-Awwal — the birthday of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). In response, Pakistani authorities issued a mandate for the expulsion of all illegal immigrants within a month, setting the deadline for October 31st. On the eastern front, India continued its offensive posturing, flexing its economic muscle and perpetuating oppression against Kashmiris and other minorities within its borders, even being involved in the assassination of a Khalistan leader in Canada.
So, what has changed since the Hamas militants initiated their offensive in Israel on October 7, 2023?
The Israel-Palestine conflict has effectively divided the world into two camps, leaving little room for alternative choices. The Hindustan Times succinctly delineated this scenario, stating, "Hamas' extensive offensive against Israel has polarized global forces, with one side expressing solidarity with Tel Aviv, and the other pointing to its role in the violence. India has joined the US-led Western world in condemning the 'terrorist attacks in Israel' by the Hamas group and expressing solidarity with Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, countries such as China, Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have backed the Palestinian cause." This situation essentially rekindles the geopolitical map reminiscent of the Cold War era, with most nations adhering to their traditional positions on the Israel-Palestine issue.
This raises the question: could other nations take advantage of this tumultuous period to address their longstanding disputes? The possibility of a Chinese attack on Taiwan or North Korea taking aggressive actions against its neighbours looms large. This is often how world wars commence—when a major global power becomes entangled in numerous conflicts, creating an opening for other nations to address their longstanding grievances.
Fingers point to Russia as the main beneficiary of Hamas’ offensive in Israel, which has opened yet another front for the US and the West, and diverted their attention from Ukraine. Foreign Policy magazine articulates the concern that Russia might exploit the situation in the Middle East. However, "there is no sign that Russia provided material support—or even had advance notice—prior to the surprise attack on Saturday…" But, let's suppose that in the next few days, the Russians openly offer military support to the Hamas offensive against Israel, which had previously condemned Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. This could lead to a greater possibility of the conflict spreading across a wider region. The involvement of other militant groups like Islamic Jihad, which have claimed attacks in Southern Israel, could significantly bolster the anti-Israel offensive.
This raises the question: could other nations take advantage of this tumultuous period to address their longstanding disputes? The possibility of a Chinese attack on Taiwan or North Korea taking aggressive actions against its neighbors looms large. This is often how world wars commence—when a major global power becomes entangled in numerous conflicts, creating an opening for other nations to address their longstanding grievances. China, nevertheless, remains an enigmatic actor in this scenario, and its actions in the Taiwan region remain to be seen.
Maintaining the status quo may be the most prudent option for Pakistan—for now, adopting a wait-and-see approach.
Given this context, what options does Pakistan now have?
For Pakistan, just a few days ago, the spectrum of possibilities appeared such: there was the option of normalizing relations with India; balancing ties between China and the United States, seeking guidance from the Kingdom's Middle East policy; or taking a clear stand on the Ukraine war, aligning with the US and the West. These courses of action held the potential to assist Pakistan in addressing its economic challenges and securing a comfortable position among major regional and global powers.
However, recent events in the Middle East have significantly altered these options.
With Saudi Arabia retracting its efforts to establish relations with Israel, Pakistan faces reduced pressure in that regard. Thus, the matter is effectively off the table. Pakistan has reverted to its historical stance, advocating for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. This places Pakistan alongside Russia and Iran, but not as an active participant in the ongoing events—thereby avoiding direct conflict with the US and the West. India, on the other hand, has taken a very precarious position on the matter. In the words of Former Ambassador KC Singh, India has gone all out to support Israel, in contrast to the traditionally balanced position it has maintained on the Palestine-Israel matter. It is being looked at as Netanyahu's courting the far-right Hindu nationalist BJP. This move has also aligned India in opposition to both Iran and Saudi Arabia, while it was trying to establish closer ties with the latter during Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s visit to the G20 Summit in New Delhi last month. In addition, India has to deal with the US and Canada concerning the assassination of a leader of the Khalistan movement. There is a lot on India’s plate already. So, Pakistan need not rush into dialogue with India—let them deal with their own problems first.
On the western front, there have been reports of the Taliban seeking safe passage through Iraq and Iran to join Hamas forces in Gaza. The Taliban government in Afghanistan has vehemently denied any such request. Of course, even if it were true, admitting this would mean the cutting off of their aid by the US and other Western countries. Neither would it suit Iran nor Iraq to become facilitators, thereby acknowledging their direct involvement in the conflict. Simultaneously, while the expulsion of illegal Afghan immigrants in Pakistan is scheduled to take place by the end of this month, no new avenues need to be opened until the house falls into order. Therefore, maintaining the status quo may be the most prudent option for Pakistan—for now, adopting a wait-and-see approach.
In a shifting global landscape, Pakistan must navigate its course with prudence, seeking stability and strategic advantage where possible, while preserving its core interests. Yet, the most pressing change that Pakistan requires at this juncture is to recalibrate the anti-military political discourse prevailing in the country. The military establishment and political parties must work together to swiftly and amicably resolve their differences.
In this situation, Pakistan cannot afford to have a weakened military or political instability.