October 19, 2019

State of Non-Affairs: Why Israel and Pakistan Don’t Relate

Israel and Pakistan share parallel creation stories. The former was carved out of British-ruled Mandatory Palestine in 1948 to serve as a homeland for the Jewish people, while the latter was conceived in 1947 as a nation for Muslims living in British-occupied Hindu-majority India.

Throughout their histories, the two states have faced threats from their neighbors, with Israel having fought several conventional wars against Arab countries committed to its destruction, whereas Pakistan and India have engaged in three major military campaigns since Islamabad gained independence. Both Pakistan and Israel are also plagued by territorial conflicts, over the Kashmir region and the West Bank and Gaza Strip, respectively.

The two countries also are regularly targeted by terrorism, are nuclear powers and both have complex interests in the world’s most complex and unstable theaters. Even the biggest difference between the states — that one is Jewish and the other Muslim — stems from a similarity, as both nations are fundamentally religious in nature.

Nevertheless, Israel and Pakistan have no diplomatic relations, despite other Muslim-majority countries having forged ties with the Jewish state, including Jordan, Egypt and Turkey in the Middle East and Azerbaijan, among others, in Central Asia.

According to Muhammed Shahid Masood Qazi, a prominent Pakistani lawyer and political analyst, none of the usual geopolitical suspects accounts for the absence of Jerusalem-Islamabad ties, especially when considering that Pakistan maintains relations, albeit strained ones, with India despite their violent past and present disputes. “Israel and Pakistan don’t share a border, have no trade disagreements and no people-to-people contact, yet there are no relations whatsoever,” Qazi said. “On the other hand, Pakistan and India share a volatile border of more than 3,000 kilometers and have fought major wars, but they nevertheless have political, economic and cultural links.”

In fact, Qazi believes that the only reason Pakistanis criticize Israel is because of the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. This is somewhat ironic, he noted, as Palestinian leaders have never publicly supported Pakistan’s claims to Kashmir, which is likely the result of Ramallah’s strong relationship with India.

Nimrod Goren, head of Mitvim — The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, said courting Islamabad is not a priority for the Israeli government. Nevertheless, he said, “Israel aspires for better relations with regional countries, and a move for enhanced ties with Pakistan would surely be welcomed.”

Israel could help Islamabad in many ways, including by helping to rid Pakistan of its image as a nation that supports terrorism. On the flip side, Pakistan, through its closeness to Arab-Muslim countries, could help the Jewish state solve its conflict with the Palestinians.

To this end, various trial balloons seemingly have been launched to gauge the possibility of a rapprochement between the two countries. In 2016, reports surfaced that the Israeli and Pakistani armies took part in a joint drill and, more recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that his government does not view Pakistan as an enemy.

Noor Dahri, founder and director of the Pakistan Israel Alliance (PIA), is working to create a better understanding between Israelis and Pakistanis, as well as Jews and Muslims. An independent researcher based in London, he created the PIA after studying at Israel’s International Institute for Counter Terrorism.

Dahri highlighted the fact that following Israel’s declaration of independence, then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion sent a telegram to the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in a bid to establish diplomatic relations. “It was a great historical step taken by Israel but, unfortunately, this offer was denied by Pakistani officials,” Dahri said.

Decades later, this almost changed; that is, had former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto not been assassinated in December 2007. She reportedly intended to establish official ties with the Jewish state if she was elected premier in a vote scheduled for the following month. Bhutto purportedly went so far as to seek protection from the Mossad, Israel’s legendary spy agency.

Only a few years earlier, top Israeli and Pakistani diplomats held a landmark meeting in Istanbul. At the time, Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom talked about a potential realignment between the Jewish state and the entire Muslim world, whereas then-Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri publicly acknowledged that Islamabad had decided to “engage” Israel after its military and civilian withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

According to Dahri, Israeli and Pakistani officials have long conducted under-the-table dealings, as well as rare public interactions. For example, in January 2005, one of Pakistan’s leading periodicals, The News, interviewed former Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who called for the two countries to have direct, open relations. Notably, the next day an angry mob stormed the newspaper’s office in Karachi.

Despite widespread animosity toward Israel, Dahri insists that the Jewish state could help Islamabad in many ways, including by helping to rid Pakistan of its image as a nation that supports terrorism. On the flip side, he contends that Pakistan, through its closeness to Arab-Muslim countries, could help Jerusalem solve its conflict with the Palestinians.

For now, though, most analysts agree that no formal Israeli-Pakistani rapprochement is on the horizon. As history suggests, it will likely take a concerted — and courageous — effort by leaders on both sides to bring the countries together.