By Imtiaz Gul
The recent media attention in Pakistan on Israel in the aftermath of Pulwama Indo-Pakistan conflict reminded me of a similar situation back in 2005 when former President General Pervez Musharraf addressed the World Jewish Congress in New York on September 17.
Immediately, thereafter, my former organization “Deutsche Welle” asked me as to why not explore Israel for a Pakistani perspective. The organization recommended my name for visa from the Israeli embassy in Cairo, the Egyptian capital.
After informally informing President Musharraf’s office, the ISPR and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I embarked on the journey with great anxiety. The travel from Cairo to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in April 2006, along with a few other European journalists, was a mix of frustrations, anger and excitement. It was eye-opening as well because never before did I realise how desperately Israeli leaders desired a working relationship with Pakistan.
One of the highlights of the visit was a visit to Ramallah, the literally besieged seat of power of the Palestinian Authority, and meeting with former prime and foreign minister Shimon Perez.
Some of Pakistan’s best friends and important players in international politics – China, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan – maintain full diplomatic ties with Israel. Some other significant interlocutors – United Arab Emirates – maintain a quasi-diplomatic relationship with the Zionist state. While India – Pakistan’s most important neighbour and pre-occupation – also talks to Jerusalem as an equal diplomatic partner since 1992, why can’t Pakistan at least engage Israel, if not establish diplomatic ties with it?
This is the question most Israelis asked – from the late Shimon Perez, to Sylvan Shalom, the ex-foreign minister, who had met with Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri at Istanbul in September 2005 – almost every Israeli who mattered in politics then wondered as to what is holding Pakistan from reaching out to them.
“I don’t see any reason why should we be hostile, we have no direct conflict,” Shimon Perez, said when I asked him about the possibility of relations with Pakistan.
Pakistan is very important as a big Muslim country – belongs on the one hand to Islamic bloc, and on the other to Indian tradition. India chose to come closer to us, so can Pakistan, Perez remarked. Fundamentalists in Pakistan want to stop the march of history and we can join hands to defeat them”, he said.
One of Perez’s predecessor Sylvan Shalom, expressed almost similar views, indirectly underlining the importance Israeli leaders’ accord to Pakistan.
“It is very important for us to have good relations with Pakistan, and I am a little disappointed that things could no move beyond my meeting with Mr. Kasuri,” Shalom said in a separate interview at his office in Tel Aviv. He had briefly met with foreign minister Khurseed Kasuri in Istanbul in September 2005.
Shalom, a lawyer by profession, argued that making the resolution of the Palestinian issue conditional for establishing ties with Israel was unwise. Most of Arab countries held the same view until they realized that life is too short to “stay away from Israel.”
While seeking a solution, we can work on economy, trade, science and technology for the benefit of the people of our countries. “That is why I don’t understand why can’t Pakistan make the next move and at least engage with Israel,” Shalom asked, suggesting that bureaus of interest could possibly precede full diplomatic relationship.
Here, his reference was to the United Arab Emirates and South East Asian countries, where Israel has managed to at least set up small representative offices – bureaus of interest – which the Israeli hi-tech and IT-related businesses are using for their cross-continental businesses.
“No one is talking about the other Israel – the Israel that boasts 17,000 dollars per capita,” Shalom pointed out. The progress in last 13 years has been staggering; the country’s per capita has more than doubled to about $43,199, according to the World Bank.
I really don’t see any reason why we should not have relations with Pakistan, the ex-foreign minister said. “This is the only way to make their impact on a resolution, it is important to talk to Israelis also instead of just standing behind the Palestinians.
Israeli officials have also ‘complained’ of world’s apathy towards the other side of Israel.
Private businessmen from Indonesia, Malaysia, and several Middle Eastern countries have been in regular business contacts with Israel which boasts more than 390 billion dollar GDP with a population of roughly seven million. Also, Israel’s annual bilateral trade has crossed $5 billion.
A number of Israeli companies rely on tens of thousands of IT professionals, for instance, sitting in India and providing solutions to clients in America and Europe. It has also made big strides in agricultural technology and techniques. The exquisite basic infrastructure – roads, telecommunication, commercial centres, the advance in defence hardware, (surveillance systems that Israel has sold to India) and professionalism in human resource, research and development programmes – also underscore the economic progress that a small country has made.
Israeli leaders argue that normalizing relations with them brings with it economic dividends. They point to growing trade with China and India and the outsourcing of production for Israeli firms in Alexandria’s new Industrial zones, as effective example of economic dividends that the relationship entails.
Palestine remains an important issue not only for Pakistan and Pakistanis but also for the Muslim world on the whole. Moreover, Israel’s human rights violations in Palestine can also not be ignored.
However, can Pakistan solve or advocate for Palestine’s problems by staying in isolation? If today, there are “some” hopes for resolution of issues such as Kashmir, Syria or Yemen, it is only because adversaries of these conflicts have some form of diplomatic ties.
Why not minimise the number of potential adversaries? That will also be the key to offset the burgeoning Indo Israeli commercial and strategic relationship.
The writer is Executive Director, CRSS.