Normalising with Israel: Don’t Rush In

Normalising with Israel: Don’t Rush In
Following news reports about a purported meeting between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, there have been rumours that Pakistan might also be headed towards normalising relations with Israel and ultimately recognising the Jewish state.

But before I get to that, let’s first recap certain other developments in the Arab world regarding Israel since September of this year.

The first Arab state to recognise Israel was the UAE. Bahrain followed suit. The recognition by both Gulf states was signed on September 15 at the White House and dubbed as the Abraham Accords. The Israeli cabinet ratified the agreements on October 13 and the UAE cabinet did the same on Oct 19 ahead of a UAE delegation’s visit to Israel.

The Gulf neighbours became the first Arab states in a quarter century to normalise relations with Israel.

This overt development, the culmination of years of subterranean and informal contacts, gave rise to speculation that Saudi Arabia will be the next Arab state to do the same. The Saudi King, however, issued a statement saying that Riyadh would not move to normalise with Israel until the resolution of the Palestinian issue.

No one was convinced, though, and rightly so. There have been many informal indications and evidence of the direction taken by Riyadh under MbS. Observers know that MbS would have taken the leap immediately but for his father (the King), reasons of internal politics (including public buy-in) and Saudi Arabia’s self-proclaimed status as leader of the Muslim world and champion of the Palestinian cause.

Now back to the news about the purported meeting. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud in a tweet denied the meeting had taken place. The denial came after a senior Saudi advisor had confirmed the meeting to the Wall Street Journal and said that normalisation and Iran were on the meeting’s agenda. The meeting was also attended by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen.

On the Israeli side, several sources, including Israel’s Education Minister Yoav Gallant, confirmed the meeting. Gallant called it an “incredible achievement.” Netanyahu himself is reported to have said that it was his policy not to address such reports, adding, however, that “For years, I have spared no effort to strengthen Israel and expand the circle of peace.”

In an interview to Fox News, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had this to say: “Well, look, I have seen the reporting. I was with each of those two. I was with the prime minister [Netanyahu] in Jerusalem. I was with the head of Mossad in Jerusalem as well. We had productive discussions. I will leave to them [Saudi and Israel] to discuss the meetings that they may have had or may not have had.”

Going by the reporting, sources and evidence (flight tracker etc), the meeting did likely happen. Such a meeting would fit in with how things are panning out. There is also a high likelihood that the leak was deliberate and the Saudi confirmation and later denial are part of a preplanned script.

Let’s now deal with the rumours regarding Pakistan.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has repeatedly stated in clear terms that Pakistan’s policy remains wedded to a two-state solution of the dispute. That solution is also pegged on the dismantling of Israeli illegal settlements, the right of refugees to return and the status of Jerusalem. Put another way, Pakistan’s recognition is contingent upon the legal-moral imperatives that attend the dispute.

That said, since memories are short, let’s walk back to September 2005. In that month, 15 years ago, then-Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri met with then-Israeli Foreign Minister Silven Shalom in Istanbul. Shalom’s statement was openly put out by Israel’s foreign ministry.

The opening read: “Statement by Silvan Shalom Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs following his meeting with Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri, Istanbul, 1 September 2005:

‘I have just completed an historic first meeting with the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, my colleague Khurshid Kasuri. Israel welcomes this meeting, and we hope that it will herald the beginning of an open and mutually beneficial relationship between our two countries.’”

Kasuri has confirmed the meeting in statements and in writing so this is a matter of record.

This meeting was followed by an address by then-President General Pervaiz Musharraf to the American Jewish Congress on September 18, 2005. Musharraf, who was given a standing ovation as he came to address the Congress, said: “Israel must come to terms with geopolitical realities and allow justice to prevail for the Palestinians. I am convinced that peace in Palestine that does justice to both the Israelis and the Palestinians will bring to a close the sad chapter in the history of the Middle East [and] will revive the historical ties between Islam and Judaism.”

I spoke with some highly-placed players of that time on the Pakistani side to get a sense of what was going on now. The gist of what they said comes to this: Those were different times. Pakistan was in an alliance with the United States in the War on Terror. We had received signals from Israel. The ask was not high. They wanted us to open some space for meetings and interactions, overt, not covert. There was no talk of recognition at any point. They wanted the two sides to discuss how Pakistan and Israel could develop a relationship. Musharraf wanted to test the waters and, additionally, also wanted to get support of the Jewish lobby in the US for furthering the US-Pakistan alliance.

But it is clear that while Musharraf wanted to see how it would pan out, he was aware that such engagement must include the Palestinians and a resolution of that issue. In the end he realised that given his lack of legitimacy at home, he was unlikely to get a public buy-in for further movement on this policy.

Circumstances have changed since then. Some of the heavyweights in the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, have moved very close to Israel. Israel doesn’t need Pakistan in the way it did in 2005 to create diplomatic heft for itself in the Muslim world. The ask would be much higher and, given the trajectory of Likud’s hardline approach under Netanyahu, there’s absolutely no chance of Pakistan front-loading the normalisation process with reference to the Palestinian issue.

In fact, this is where the rub lies. The Abraham Accords are a break from the framework outlined in the Arab Peace Initiative (2002). The principle enshrined in that was simple: normalisation with Israel is to be contingent upon resolution of the Palestinian issue — peace for land. Netanyahu has long talked about peace for peace: i.e., the Arab world will be better off normalising with Israel without any preconditions. In other words, the framework should move from Israeli-Palestinian dispute to Israeli-Arab relations. In this framework, the Palestinian dispute becomes one of the many issues that can be talked about, if at all.

Given the power differential between Israel and the Arabs, this essentially means the Palestinians are left to their own devices: i.e., they have to seek some settlement with Israel without external support, most likely on the basis of the two-phase (economic and political) Trump Peace Plan (rejected by the Palestinians). Over some years, Iran has become another pressing factor. The fault-line runs so deep that the Saudi-led Arab alliance would happily side with Israel to degrade Iran’s strategic capabilities. Another factor is Turkey. Ironically, while Turkey already has diplomatic relations with Israel, there have been so many ebbs that relations have become adversarial (the details are too complex to be listed here).

Corollary: the API is all but dead; economic relations and security against Iran’s regional ambitions have become the overriding factors. In this framework, the Palestinian dispute has all but disappeared.

In this scenario, Pakistan has to tread very carefully and think hard about its choices. That essentially means weighing the pros and cons. That calculation has to be on the basis of the central determinants of Pakistan’s national security paradigm. While that discussion requires its own treatment, we can take one central plank: Kashmir.

Would normalising with Israel bring any dividends on that count? Would the US push India to resolve Kashmir? Would Israel recalibrate its diplomatic and defence cooperation with India to make space for Pakistan’s interests and concerns? The answer to both is no. It will have some pros, but the cons will outweigh them. While diplomacy is often about circumlocution, even a circumlocutory defence requires some hard ground for one to stand on. At the minimum Pakistan needs to wait and see how things will unfold in the coming months.

There seems to be a push for it here. We have undersold ourselves many times before. Let’s hope we don’t do it this time.

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times with interest in defence and security affairs. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.