With the Arab world opening up to Israel, shock waves are being felt deeply around the Muslim world, especially in Pakistan, the only nuclear power in the Muslim world. Will Pakistan also get on the bandwagon and open up ties with Israel for a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian issue?The short answer is no. The long answer is that it possibly cannot. This is for a few reasons rooted in Pakistan’s mismanagement of its foreign policy regarding the issue.Pakistan’s policy on the Arab-Israel conflict is a product of the late 1940s and early ‘50s when the country was trying to establish itself as an eastern fortress of the Islamic world to mobilize Muslim support against India. This required solidarity with the Arab states that were foremost parties to a conflict with Israel. The hope in Pakistan was that the Islamic world would reciprocate Pakistan’s support over the Palestine issue by supporting Pakistan’s stand on Kashmir against India. This, however, never happened because, for the Arab world, Palestine was an Arab-Israel conflict not a Muslim-Jewish one, and Kashmir was a Pakistan-India conflict not a Hindu-Muslim one.It is this fundamental difference in the approach toward the conflict that Pakistan has become for the last few decades a prisoner to its own policy. While the Arab-Israel conflict after the 1967 Six Day War and 1973 Yom Kippur War got reduced to the Israel-Palestine conflict with Arab partners opening up to Israel, Pakistan’s foreign policy never really changed, despite the context around it having been entirely transformed. Some 72 years on, Pakistan’s policy on the Israel-Palestine conflict is dictated neither by principles nor by interests. It is dictated by inertia.A key reason for this inertia is how Pakistan sold the entire Palestine issue domestically through a deeply religious sentiment, backing it up with out-of-context Koranic verses framing it only a Jewish vs. Muslim problem rather than a territorial and human-rights problem.Not only did this end up creating an unknown enemy out of the Jewish people, it also gave rise to conspiracies of all sorts inside the country that helped the ruling elite sway public opinion in whichever direction it benefited their politics. For instance, when the current Prime Minister Imran Khan launched his political career in 1995, he was targeted for being a “Jewish agent” by the ex-PM Nawaz Sharif’s right-wing political party, which saw him as a political threat. This was because Khan had married a Jewish socialite during his time in London. Similarly, the “Jewish conspiracy” has also been used to discredit any dissent against the ruling powers and marginalize minority communities inside the country.Therefore, the radicalization of the Arab-Israel conflict along the religious and nationalist lines meant that no political party or institution in Pakistan would then be able to even discuss, let alone revisit, Pakistan’s policy on the issue.THIS INERTIA is also maintained through a deliberate devolution of the foreign policy on this subject to the public and opinion makers who lack the sensitivities of that foreign policy. Therefore, whenever there is a debate on the Israel-Palestine conflict, it draws an emotionally charged public into the discourse that clings on to the argument that Pakistan’s Palestine policy is based on its founding father MA Jinnah’s wishes, and hence cannot be changed. Not only is this line of argument divorced from the common sense of policymaking, it also essentially stunts Pakistan from going against Jinnah’s policy, despite that the entire context and issue around it has changed. Therefore, to argue on the subject with a public that is fed misinformation is like hitting a dead end.Despite all the emotions and professed love for the Palestinian cause, the problem is that Pakistan has so far only provided rhetorical support, mere lip service to the Palestinian cause, and because it fits its narrative on the Kashmir issue. Therefore, if Pakistan aims to really stand up for the Palestinian cause at a time when there is a diplomatic shift in the region, it will require an equal shift in its approach. There doesn’t have to be a change in Pakistan’s principles on the issue or “recognition” of Israel, but the country can definitely not continue to pursue a “look away” policy that has thus far neither helped Palestinians nor Pakistanis. A good place to start would be re-educating the people on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and addressing how Pakistan can be a party to a solution rather than remaining a simple bystander stuck in a policy loop.Unfortunately, Pakistan’s Palestine policy is less to do with Palestinian rights and more to do with Pakistan’s domestic politics. In the changing circumstances of the Arab world, this may become more intensified instead of loosening up, given that Pakistan’s growing closeness with Turkey and Iran, along with divisive domestic politics, might radicalize the Israel-Palestine issue even more, to a point of no return.The only silver lining in an otherwise hopeless policy situation is that there is clear recognition within the Pakistani security establishment on the need to revisit its Israel-Palestine policy. For the military officials, the goal is to have one less enemy in a region where Pakistan is trapped on both sides.The only problem is inertia. It is maintained because of consistent politics from the actors who are short on vision and see more domestic political benefit from the status quo than they do from a genuine desire to help the Palestinian people achieve their human and fundamental rights.The writer is a policy specialist working in the national security and foreign policy domain in Pakistan. He was previously a senior Pakistan expert at the United States Institute of Peace and the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.
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