A pact for peace?

August 23, 2020

For now, the position articulated by the Pakistani PM, and the Foreign Office on UAE-Israel deal is the correct one

After Egypt and Jordan, the UAE is the third Arab state to normalise ties with Israel.

In a world where Nigel Farage can lead a movement for the exit of Great Britain from the European Union, a world in which Donald Trump can be elected president, and a world in which Narendra Modi is welcomed to capitals around the world with garlands, maybe anything is possible.

So Benjamin Netanyahu — whose on-again, off-again leadership of Israel predates this recent development — trying to pass himself off as a peacemaker for the Middle East should surprise no one. But what does the recent UAE-Israel deal mean for Pakistan? And how should Pakistan react to it?

Any response to the forcible removal and denial of a people’s right to live on their land is not complicated. It only seems so when we apply the framework of bilateral, state-to-state relations upon it. Identity, as Francis Fukuyama has written in his book of the same title, is increasingly shaping politics everywhere. As it does, the anthropological drift into “ever narrower identities threatens the possibility of deliberation and collective action by the society as a whole”. What Fukuyama is saying is simple. If you force the hand of “the other”, the other will leave no stone unturned to establish her otherness. The Palestinian is the other. She has not and will likely never go quietly into the night.

The UAE’s recent agreement to a process of normalization with Israel has triggered speculation that other countries are in line to do the same. The term, “the first domino to fall” has been used with both great relish and disappointment. Of course, like all heavily advertised products, both Israel as an entity capable of peace, and the UAE as a mere domino, are much more of a hype than substance. The UAE-Israel deal is historic, but it is not transformative. It neither advances the cause of peace in the Middle East in any dramatic manner, nor does it damage the cause of Palestinians any more than it has already been damaged. What it does is serve the specific short-term interests of Israel and the United States. It also helps the UAE re-focus the fading attention of Americans on Abu Dhabi. The UAE-Israel deal is thus the very essence of the pursuit of cold, hard national interest.

Israel requires the capacity to continue to dupe Americans of Jewish faith into the idea that the State of Israel is invested in a peaceful co-existence with Arabs. This notion, always problematic to begin with, has become harder and harder to sell. Millennial Jews in the United States have a foundationally different politics than their parents and grandparents did, and the unlimited supply of American approval for Israel had been in steady decline for three decades before the Kafkaesque convergence of Steve Bannon white supremacy with Bibi Netanyahu’s relentless Islamophobia. The deal with the UAE affords Israel a fig leaf of legitimacy and it allows Israel to advertise its intent of peace with Arabs as a serious pillar of Israeli foreign policy.

The UAE’s incentives for the deal are multifarious, but among its most important strategic concerns is the growing centrality of Doha to the wider Gulf region — and what an altered centre of gravity in the Persian Gulf might mean for the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Oman and Kuwait. There is a growing number of Khaleeji strategists that believe that whilst there may be room in the GCC for a Saudi Arabia plus one strategic regime in the region, there is no room for any that align with Iran. Qatar has openly embraced virtually every counter-factual to Saudi alignment that is imaginable, most notably Erdogan’s Turkey. For the first four decades of its existence, Emirati strategic thinking had its origins in the collectivist instincts of its founder, Shaikh Zayed. This shaped a foreign policy ethos for the UAE that enabled it to be instrumental in the relative peace and tranquility of interstate relations within the GCC for many years. As identity increasingly shapes politics in the West and East, it also informs the calculus of countries like the UAE. Crown Prince Shaikh Mohammed Bin Zayed’s approach to the UAE’s national security is rooted as much in the increasingly sharper sense of local, tribal and national identity in the Arabian peninsula, as it is in big power gamesmanship that small powers must react and respond to. In short, the UAE sees a process of normalization with Israel not as a betrayal of the Palestinians, nor necessarily as an offensive to counter Iran, but as the defensive behaviour of a small country doing what it has to for itself.

On August 18, PM Imran Khan said that Pakistan would never accept Israel until the Palestinians got a “just settlement”.

The UAE-Israel deal is historic, but it is not transformative. It neither advances the cause of peace in the Middle East in any dramatic manner, nor does it damage the cause of Palestinians any more than it has already been damaged. What it does is serve the specific short-term interests of Israel and the United States.

Muslims around the world that enjoy a sense of romance in the notion of the Ummah are aghast at such calculations. Mostly because this sense of fraternity or sisterhood with co-religionists is often mistakenly extended to international relations, and especially to the analysis of state-to-state relations of other countries. The assumption that the Muslim identity of countries with OIC membership will be the principal motivation for their public policy frameworks is problematic not because there is any doubt about the notion of the Ummah, but because the notion of the Ummah cannot (and does not) outrank or overwhelm the various other interests and identities that shape the behaviour and volition of nation states (economic, strategic, political and as is so obvious in the Middle East, sectarian). Indeed, the deployment of identity as a unifier, rather than as a divider, is increasingly hard to find.

The natural question is whether Pakistan should then also examine the option of relations with Israel. The answer is: despite an array of potential benefits that may accrue to Pakistan, no. To assess Pakistan from the same lens as the UAE, or Bahrain, or Oman, would require us to ignore the unique nature of the Pakistani state, and the genesis of Pakistani national power.

Unlike the Gulf States, and indeed, unlike Turkey and Iran, Pakistan, by very definition, is an ideological project. The ideological aspirations of Turkey and Iran are regime-driven. Pakistan’s are existential. The bedrock of Pakistan’s strategic thinking is Muslim identity. This was a relatively amorphous proposition in the first phase of Pakistani independence, for a wide array of reasons, mostly to do with Quaid-i-Azam’s very early death, and the denial of Bengali identity that helped seal the fate of East Pakistan very early in the life of the nation. The forging of Muslim identity as a bedrock of Pakistani strategic thinking was actualized by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who foresaw the centripetal nature of Pakistan within the international community, as far as Muslim majority nations were concerned. Pakistan’s geography, its internal sectarian and linguistic diversity, its organic federal nature and its democratic genesis all integrate seamlessly into this centripetal role. Naturally, Pakistan is economically incapable of fulfilling this role. So far. But this does not necessitate an abandonment of the principle.

The issue of Palestine is not merely one of principle, or of an emotive clinging to unlikely scenarios of Palestinian statehood. The fact is that even if there was no such thing as Palestine — and let’s face it, the Palestinian leadership has left no stone unturned in trying to help Israel and a parade of US presidents to make it so — the status of Jerusalem is a stand-alone, defining issue for Pakistan. No outcome in the Middle East that does not afford Muslim dominion over Al Quds Al Sharif will be acceptable. Jerusalem is forever the third holiest locale in Islam. There is no negotiation or set of incentives that will change this.

To even begin to consider normalizing relations with Israel, Pakistani leaders would need to demonstrate the value they have added to both the Muslim and Palestinian cause. What is the likelihood of such value being realized? In the immediate term, pretty close to zero. The pendulum of politics within Israel has swung too dramatically and violently to the right in the last two decades.

Ariel Sharon’s unforgiveable violation of the Temple Mount in September 2000 was not just a singular act of political theatre. It also marked a hardening and formalization of Israeli expansionism. It would take something approaching the Ehud Barak offer of the 2000 Camp David Summit for Pakistan to commit to any serious conversation about recognizing Israel — but even two decades ago, that offer was considered so poisonous by Israelis, that it ended up being a dagger into the heart of Barak’s political career.

Indeed, if the possibility of a two-state solution, of Jerusalem as a capital shared between Palestinians and Israelis, of the right of return for Palestinians and of the cessation of Israeli territorial expansion are all substantially diminished, then what should the future position of Pakistan, with respect to Israel, be? For now, the principled position articulated by the Foreign Office is the correct one. Pakistan has priorities it must attend to that are more urgent and closer to home. Without a two-state solution that marks a permanent end to settlement expansion, as well as Al Quds Al Sharif as the Palestinian capital, there is no light at the end of the Pakistan-Israel tunnel.

The writer is a senior fellow at Tabadlab, a policy think tank in Islamabad

UAE-Israel deal: A pact for peace?