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Ideas, conflict, and the arms trade: The path to relations for Israel and Pakistan?

By Michael Bender, PhD

On August 26th of this year an interesting, albeit uneventful, scenario unfolded in the skies above the Nevada desert that saw the participation of Israel and Pakistan in high-level military exercises with the United States Air Force.  Several countries, including the UAE, Turkey and a couple European nations, took part in the exercises along with Israel and Pakistan in what is considered to be the US’s “premier air-to-air combat training exercise”. [1] While this joint measure is most likely a blimp on the radar in the complex and contentious relationship that Israel and Pakistan have historically had, it does create some fodder for debate.

Israel was established in May of 1948, approximately 9 months after Pakistan’s partition with India and subsequent creation.  Early on there existed some hope of normalization between the two upstart nations, but like many Muslim majority nations then and now, Pakistan did not recognize the existence of Israel.   After the First Israeli-Arab War in 1948, Israel sought to open a low-level diplomatic office in Karachi, or at least engage in open trade with Pakistan.  In 1950, a delegation of Israelis made initial contact with Pakistan’s High Commissioner in London to discuss these possibilities. However, little came out of the meeting, and the potential for the establishment of any such relations would wane over the years as the Israel-Palestinian conflict continued to intensify. [2] Pakistan, as one of the world’s most populous Muslim countries and a leader of the global Islamic community (the umma), would continue to fortify their unconditional support for the Palestinian cause up and through the modern-day.

While tangible improvement in the relationship between Israel and Pakistan may be many years or even decades from fruition, there do exist a few potential avenues by which the two nations could find common ground and engage one another.  Some of these avenues have been mentioned before, while others could develop, given the current and emerging state of affairs in the South Asian region.

The history and foundations of each of these states provide a possible medium of connection between the two.  As previously mentioned, Israel and Pakistan were established less than a year apart.  Both were carved out of what had previously been the British colonial empire, and both engaged in violent wars of partition with neighboring nations almost immediately following their own independence.  The most unique link between the two nations historically, however, is the foundational idea on which each state was constructed, and from which each finds its legitimacy as a nation.  Both countries were founded on a national identity that is based in a religion, Jewish Nationalism (i.e. Zionism) in Israel and Muslim Nationalism in Pakistan.

The rise of Islamic radicalism in recent decades, along with the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has together worked to propagate an anti-Israel and anti-Jewish narrative vis-à-vis the Muslim world.  However, at a fundamental level, the Jewish religion and Islamic religion are born of the same seed, and have more in common with one another in terms of values, principles and beliefs, than they do with any other tradition.  As the only two modern nation-states founded on religious nationalism, the facilitation of a progressive relationship between Israel and Pakistan could find some traction in the mutual recognition of the inherent connection between their religions and in the shared experience of nation building.

Another potential pathway to relations lies in the rise of terror attacks within Pakistan.  Since 2003, Pakistan has suffered more than 27,900 civilian and security personal fatalities as a result of terror attacks within its borders. [3] Over the last decade and a half, Pakistan has worked with, and received support from, US and Western forces in the post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’.  Beginning in June of 2014, and still ongoing, Pakistan military forces engaged in their own ‘Operation Zarb-e-Azb’ against multiple terror outfits within the country and along the Pak-Afghan border.  This has been part of an effort to purge the country of the threat of terrorism and, while the annual number of attacks, and number of fatalities resulting from these attacks, has markedly declined since the beginning of the operation, the absolute extent of its success cannot be evaluated for several more years.

Pushing aside arguments that the groups responsible for terrorism were originally created and/or are fostered by the Pakistani government for some tactical or strategic purpose, and that the country’s resulting problems with terrorism essentially amount to blowback, there ultimately remains the need to solve the widespread terror threat that Pakistan deals with on a regular basis.

This is where Israel could offer their strategic and tactical counter-terror expertise as a means for Pakistan to combat its own terror issue.  Israel has been dealing with threats and instances of terrorism for several decades, and is internationally recognized as employing some of the most strategically, operationally, and tactically effective means for dealing with such threats in the modern-day.  Many countries, including the US, France and even India, have engaged in counter-terror consultation and training with the Israelis over the last decade and a half in order to learn from their extensive experience in this area as well as how their strategies and tactics have evolved.

A mujahideen resistance fighter shoots an SA-7, 1988. (Photo: Courtesy of WikiCommons)
A mujahideen resistance fighter shoots an SA-7, 1988. (Photo: Courtesy of WikiCommons)

The final avenue of potential engagement is found within the economic sector, and more specifically the arms trade.  Pakistan’s tumultuous and conflictual history with its neighbor India, and its geo-strategic position bordering a rogue state in Iran, a failing state in Afghanistan, and the jihadi hotbed that is the Pak-Afghan border, have combined to make defense concerns and spending a top priority for Pakistan’s government.  Furthermore, there is also a small historical precedent for engagement in arms trade between the two countries.  This purportedly took place in the 1980’s during the CIA-led ‘Operation Cyclone’ when Israel facilitated the sale of arms to Pakistan, who would then pass them on to the Afghan Mujahideen in their fight against the Soviets. [5]

In 2015 Pakistan spent $735 million on arms imports, ranking them 10th worldwide, with China and the US being their top suppliers. [4] The seeming shift away from the United States that Pakistan is currently undergoing could create a supply gap in their arms imports and, while US rival countries like China and Russia seem poised to fill this gap, an opening for Israel to do business here could present itself .

Pakistan could potentially fall into Israel’s ‘Look East’ policy that has, over the last several years,  seen them aggressively engage China (economically), India (strategically and economically), and others.  Not only is Israel a global leader in production of high-tech weapons and cutting-edge defense technology that could strategically, operationally and tactically benefit the Pakistani military, but India, Pakistan’s most concerning enemy, has taken great advantage of what Israel has to offer in this realm over the last decade by becoming the number one destination for Israeli arms sales.  And while the warming of relations that has taken place between India and Israel over the last several years could prove to be another impediment to any theoretical advancement in Israeli-Pak relations, Israel has rarely ever been shy when it comes to being open with regard to matters of business. The significant priority Pakistan places on issues of defense, and the possible concern over India gaining an extensive technological, strategic or tactical edge on them, creates a scenario where tangible security concerns may eventually outweigh their uncompromising adherence to the anti-Israel narrative they have historically propagated as a leader of the global umma and of the Palestinian cause.

Whether through shared ideas, the need to deal with conflict, or the desire to maintain elite defense capabilities, the establishment of relations between Pakistan and Israel has the potential to be mutually beneficial for both sides.  For Pakistan, it could provide them with the technology needed to maintain pace in their decades-long rivalry with India.  It could also provide them with the strategic and tactical means to more efficiently deal with their domestic terror issues.  For Israel, the benefit could be normative with regard to bridging the gap between themselves and the rest of the Islamic world, while also opening up new markets for their rapidly developing defense industry.

In early 2012, former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf openly suggested favorable relations with Israel, in part, based on “realities on the ground”. [6] While his ideas were promptly shut down by many members of the Pakistani parliament, this instance does carry some symbolic significance. It provides an example of one of Pakistan’s (former) highest ranking officials calling for a major shift not only in Israeli-Pakistan relations, but the relations of Israel with a major state actor of the Muslim world, a world that has historically refused Israel’s right to exist.  However, given some of the most recent events taking place between Israel and the Muslim world, such as Israel’s opening of a low-level diplomatic mission in the UAE or the recent visit of a retired major-general from the Saudi military to Israel, perhaps the potential for an Israeli-Pak rapprochement is more of a reality than previously thought possible.

References:

  1. Judah Ari Gross, ‘Israel to fly alongside Pakistan, UAE in US Air Force drill’, The Times of Israel, 3rd August 2016
  2. Moshe Yegar, ‘Pakistan and Israel’, Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, 25th October 2007
  3. Fatalities in Terrorist Violence in Pakistan 2003-2016’, The South Asia Terrorism Portal, 25th September 2016
  4. [AFP/News Desk], ‘Pakistan Spent $735 on Arms Imports in 2015’, The Express Tribune (Pakistan), 22nd February 2016
  5. Pakistan Got Israeli Weapons During Afghan War’, The Daily Monitor (Pakistan), 30th September 2003
  6. [Reuters], ‘Musharraf Urges Review of Ties With Israel’, The Express tribune (Pakistan), 7th January 2012

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Michael Bender

Dr. Bender is a 2016 graduate of the doctoral program the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University (FIU) where he completed his dissertation entitled 'History, Identity Politics and Securitization: Religion's Role in the Establishment of Indian-Israeli Diplomatic Relations and Future Prospects for Cooperation'. Dr. Bender’s areas of focus include IR of South Asia, Middle East studies, religion and politics, security studies and foreign policy. He has been an undergraduate instructor at FIU and Broward College where he has taught introductory courses in IR, religious studies and political science, as well as specialty courses dealing with conflict, security studies, and contemporary issues. Most recently, Dr. Bender was a Visiting Postdoctoral Associate at FIU where he has continued as an online instructor of IR and has concentrated on his research focusing on identity politics in South Asia and Israel’s relations in South Asia. He is currently an instructor of International Relations at The Washington Center in Washington D.C.

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