In the mid-80s Israel and India had secretly planned to destroy Pakistan’s nuclear facility in Kahuta on the outskirts of Islamabad. Israel, which does not share border with Pakistan, was thought to be a part of the plan because it did not want to see an “Islamic bomb.” The plan was aborted after Pakistan warned that it would target India’s nuclear facilities if Kahuta came under attack. Neither Israel nor India have ever officially acknowledged it, although, there were several private accounts and references in some books, showing the existence of such a plan. Whether or not Israel was indeed contemplating destroying Pakistan’s nuclear facility, it nevertheless reinforced the perception in the country that Israel is Pakistan’s enemy. Public opinion suggests that there exists an Indo-US-Israeli nexus against Pakistan. Most recently Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani also alluded to the emerging alliance between these three countries, insisting this is not only a threat for the South Asian region but also the wider Muslim world.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was on tour to India recently, brushed aside this perception that his country views Pakistan as an enemy state. Netanyahu also claimed that the main focus of his visit to India was economic rather than a military one. He also refused to take the bait when he was asked during an interview with an Indian news channel whether Israel would back New Delhi if it launches “surgical strikes” against Pakistan. The statement was significant for two counts (a) because he said this on the Indian soil (b) it came against the backdrop of Pakistan’s concerns that growing Indo-Israel defence cooperation can disturb the conventional balance in the already volatile region.
Israel may not have any diplomatic ties with Pakistan, but this does not mean it would say something publicly that antagonises Islamabad. Netanyahu’s calculated statement on Pakistan was manifestation of that approach. Not long ago, Israel had to issue a clarification after a fake news story claimed that its former defence minister threatened to launch a nuclear attack against Pakistan if it sent its troops to Syria. No matter how we perceive Israel, the fact is it is very smart and has a robust foreign policy. After all, diplomacy is the art of making new friends and avoiding confrontation with countries with which you don’t have the best of relations.
Should Pakistan revisit its decades-old policy towards Israel then? The subject is sensitive and that is why there is little or no public debate on it, although policymakers must have been pondering this question behind closed doors. Pakistan’s Israel policy historically has been driven by the position taken by the larger Muslim world against the Jewish state. But as a matter of fact proponents of that policy have now themselves embraced the change. Saudi Arabia is the prime example. It is an open secret that Saudi Arabia and Israel have been talking to each other for many years now to at least maintain some contacts if not establishing full diplomatic relations.
Pakistan does not necessarily need to compromise on its principled stance on the Palestinian issue or recognize Israel. But Islamabad can at least explore the possibility of maintaining working relationship with Israel to protect its strategic interests. Former military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf took the unprecedented step to reach out to Israel. In 2005, the foreign ministers from Pakistan and Israel held landmark talks in Istanbul. The process, however, could not move further because of the political turmoil in Pakistan and subsequent ouster of Musharraf from power. The very idea of maintaining contacts was to offset any negative fallout of Israeli’s growing intimacy with India. That approach is still very much relevant. Also opening channels of communication with Israel can give a whole new perspective to Pakistan-US ties given the influence of the Jewish lobby in Washington, DC.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 29th, 2018.