Facing up to reality

12 Feb 2005

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EVERY once in a while, what passes for a debate pulses through our drawing rooms and across the media. The question debated stridently but briefly is whether Israel should be recognized by Pakistan.

Many Pakistanis are of the view that the Zionist state is somehow desperate for our recognition. The truth is that most Israelis would have trouble spotting Pakistan on the map of the globe. Another truth, one we are reluctant to face, is that in today’s world, it is Pakistan that needs to build bridges with Israel.

Let’s get one thing clear: recognition is not conferred on a country as a badge of good behaviour. Had this been so, many countries would have refused to recognize us after our army’s rampage in East Pakistan in 1971. By recognizing a state, we are merely acknowledging its legal status and its right to exist as a member of the community of nations. No approval of its policies is implicit in recognition.

Although for many years the Arab world denied Israel the right to exist, those days are long gone. Egypt and Jordan have embassies in Tel Aviv, and many other Arab states have unofficial ties with the Jewish state. Turkey even has a defence pact with Israel, and regularly conducts joint military exercises with the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

And even at the height of the Intifada, the Palestinians were perforce talking to Israel. Years ago, Yasser Arafat conceded Israel’s right to exist within its legal borders. If the Palestinians, the aggrieved party in the conflict, can recognize Israel, who are we, sitting thousands of miles away and having no direct differences with Israel, to withhold recognition?

With a ceasefire in effect between Israel and Palestine, and with negotiations hopefully to follow, Pakistan would be far better placed to help the Palestinians with a presence in Tel Aviv, rather than as a distant onlooker. Indeed, as Shimon Peres, the Israeli deputy prime minister, recently said in an interview with a Pakistani daily: “If Pakistan wants to be a part of that (the peace process), it will have to draw this conclusion: it cannot be done by remote control.”

Over the years, there have been many rumours about secret contacts between Islamabad and Tel Aviv. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Israel was one of the countries supplying arms to the freedom fighters. But these clandestine approaches were all hidden under the cloak of deniability. However, as Peres said in an interview with a private Pakistani TV channel in 2003: “Pakistan and Israel should sit openly, clearly, under an open sky, talking like human beings, to air out our difference.”

Last year, General Musharraf asked for a public debate on relations with Israel, but beyond a few clichis, the discussion petered out, only to be revived recently by the Peres interview. The religious parties were unanimous in denouncing any moves to accord recognition, without giving any cogent reasons. The best they could do was to express their anger over the treatment the Israelis have been meting out to Palestinians under their occupation.

But now that a ceasefire is in force, all supporters of Palestine should try and build on this and move the process forward. We have all grieved with the Palestinians over their decades of suffering. However, there is little profit in nursing old grievances. The fact is that Israel is here to stay, and wishing it away will not help the Palestinian cause one jot.

Then there is the strategic dimension to consider. Under the previous Bharatiya Janata Party government, India forged strong commercial and defence links with Israel. As a result, the Indian defence forces have acquired access to a broad range of high-tech weapons systems. Israel is one of a handful of countries manufacturing state-of-the-art electronic systems designed for tomorrow’s battlefields. We remain out of this market at our peril.

Politically, too, ties with Israel would be of great benefit. Currently, the powerful Israeli lobby in Washington mostly supports India whenever the question of arms supplies to Pakistan is raised in Congress or the administration. Surely, it would be to our advantage to neutralize this opposition.

But despite these clear benefits to Pakistan and Palestine, many Pakistanis are convinced that our five-decade old boycott of Israel should continue. For some reason, we think we are better Muslims than anybody else. So never mind if Turkey, Egypt and Jordan have recognized Israel: we will refuse to change our policy even though the times have changed.

States form their foreign policy based on a pragmatic assessment of costs and benefits. While ideology may be a factor in internal policies, relations with other states should be based on enlightened self-interest. For instance, China, although nominally a communist state, adopts capitalist policies to trade and prosper. It is rapidly improving ties with India despite a major war and an on-going territorial dispute.

But Pakistan remains hostage to its own professed piety: internal policies and external relations are all based on a narrow vision of religion. Semi-educated religious leaders with very little experience of how the global system functions have acquired a veto over policy-making.

Most leaders, including those in uniform, have shied away from taking any decision which might upset the religious parties. In the present case, Musharraf depends on the MMA for legitimacy and support, even though the religious alliance is currently in a sulk. But there is a broad convergence of views between the army and the religious grouping, both of which would like to keep popular, secular politicians out of power.

I am willing to make a small bet: even when Israel and the Palestinians have arrived at and implemented a peace accord which leads to the creation of a Palestinian state, our clergy will still oppose the recognition of Israel. And the government of the day, frightened of a fundamentalist backlash, will isolate us by continuing an outdated policy.

Pakistan’s foreign policy over the years has been marked by its inflexibility. Time and again, we have been unable to change it according to the times and the circumstances, and we have paid a heavy price for our rigidity. What we call “our principled policy” is actually a lack of imagination.

But in all fairness, Pakistan’s foreign policy has been mostly formulated at GHQ, and not in the foreign office. Politicians and diplomats have been kept at arm’s length by the army, especially where important decisions have been concerned. And now, when there is an opportunity to take the initiative rather than reacting to events, chances are that we will continue plodding along our familiar path of refusing to recognize the reality of Israel.