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  • Writer's pictureSaleem Qamar Butt

Multi-dimensional Geopolitical Shift in the Middle East

The trilateral declaration, which was announced by US President Donald Trump on Thursday 13 August 2020, proclaimed the establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and the UAE, making the Emirates the first Gulf state to do so. A number of deals on bilateral cooperation are expected to be signed by the two nations soon. It also stated that Israel would “suspend” the proposed annexation of part of occupied Palestinian territories, though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed that part, saying there was “no change” in his government’s plans. The Kushner plan basically called for Israel and the Palestinians to make peace, with Israel being able to annex some 30 percent of the West Bank, where most of its settlers were, and the Palestinians getting to establish a demilitarized, patchwork state on the other 70 percent, along with some land swaps from Israel. The Palestinians rejected the deal outright as unbalanced and unjust. Nevertheless, this multidimensional geo-political shift in the Middle East is bound to stir fresh appraisal by states and analysts as to how this deal affects every major stakeholder in the region: with those in the pro-American, pro-moderate Islam, pro-ending-the-conflict-with-Israel-once-and-for-all camp; and those in the pro-Iran, anti-American, pro-Islamist permanent-struggle-with-Israel side, all becoming more hardened antagonists.

For its part, the UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said that the deal to normalise relations with Israel was “a bold step” to secure a two-state solution to the long-running Israel-Palestinian conflict. The new alliance has broken the status quo in which Israel was mostly isolated by its neighbours as a pariah. According to Thomas Friedman, an experienced regional expert, “this deal may encourage the other gulf sheikhdoms (Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia), all of which have had covert and overt business and intelligence dealings with Israel, to follow the Emirates’ lead. They will not want to let the U.A.E. have a leg up in being able to marry its financial capital with Israel’s cyber technology, agriculture technology and health care technology, with the potential to make both countries stronger and more prosperous…..This was the U.A.E. telling the Iranians and all their proxies: There are really two coalitions in the region today — those who want to let the future bury the past and those who want to let the past keep burying the future. The U.A.E. is taking the helm of the first, and it is leaving Iran to be the leader of the second”.

The Palestinian Authority has recalled its ambassador to the UAE in response to the move. Ankara came head on this development; “The history and conscience of the nations in the region will not forget and will never forgive this hypocritical act by the UAE, which betrayed the Palestinian cause for the sake of their narrow interests and is now trying to present it as a selfless step,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said. Iran’s foreign ministry denounced the Washington-brokered deal as an act of “strategic stupidity from Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv” and said it was a “dagger … unjustly struck by the UAE in the backs of the Palestinian people and all Muslims”. It is an established fact that hostility towards Iran shared by Israel and several Middle East states has been a critical factor in their budding relations in recent years, boosted by Washington’s attempts to gather a coalition of autocratic Arab leaders against Tehran and its allies.

The recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel and the decision to shift the US embassy there by US President Trump have been very controversial moves. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a huge issue in the region. Israel has fought multiple wars with each of its four neighbours, all of whom nominally support the Palestinian national cause. Today, it has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, but its relations with its other neighbours, Syria and Lebanon, are fraught. Outside its immediate neighbours, the three most important regional states in the conflict are Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia (all three trying to be dominant leader of the Muslim world since end of First World War after dissolution of Ottoman Caliphate). Some 83% of the world's countries and almost every country that isn't Arab or has a Muslim majority recognize Israel's legitimacy and maintain diplomatic relations with it. But most countries are critical of Israel's brutal treatment of the Palestinians, gross human rights violations and ongoing occupation of the West Bank. In one BBC poll of 22 countries, Israel was the fourth-most-disliked nation.

The 1993 Oslo Accords kicked off a peace process is an ongoing American-mediated effort to broker a peace treaty between the Israelis and Palestinians. It aims at "final status agreement," which would establish a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank in exchange for Palestinians agreeing to permanently end attacks on Israeli targets. Any successful peace initiative would need to resolve the four core issues that have plagued the peace process: West Bank borders/settlements, Israeli security, Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem. So far there has been little success mainly due to the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The Palestinians’ politically division between Fatah and Hamas and the challenge to initiate a serious dialogue due to extreme positions on both Israeli and Palestinian sides has also marred a breakthrough.

In this fast changing geopolitical ground realities, what are Pakistan’s foreign policy options? One obvious and easy option is to maintain the status quo; which Pakistan foreign office has tried by supporting two states solution as per UN Resolutions on the Palestine issue. Prime Minister of Pakistan in a TV interview emotionally expressed old stance that Pakistan will not accept Israel as a state (Israel ko tasleem nahi karain gay) till Palestine issue is resolved. However, the other bolder but politically little dicey option is to undertake reappraisal of long held stance. If we put 72 years old Pakistani stance on Israel to test, many questions arise due to greatly changed geo-political realities. Does Pakistan’s non-recognition of Israel affect Israel in any way? Can Pakistan play a better role in the resolution of the Palestine issue by diplomatic engagement of Israel or by continuing to maintain no-recognition and diplomatic isolation? If Pakistan can successfully maintain multi-tracks diplomatic relations for disputes resolutions with arch rival India, why can't the same be done with Israel? Wouldn’t it mean at least one undue hostile state less on the Indian side? If Palestinian and Arabs having fought wars with Israel can recognize the benefits of talking to Israel, what is holding Pakistan back? Doesn’t our old stance unwittingly put us in one of the two camps anyway with no advantage to Palestine cause but with obvious pitfalls to Pakistan and Kashmir cause?

Despite available precedence of some modest behind-the-scenes diplomatic engagements with Israel in 2005, even a fresh deliberate cost-benefit analysis may result in urging Pakistan to revisit its Foreign Policy with pure national interest as a leading principle rather than outsourcing it to other countries for petty lures. The incumbent political government in Pakistan may find it an exceedingly bizarre diplomatic gamble to reach out to Israel in any way due to an expected political backlash from the opposition including politico-religious elements aspiring for a political lifeline in Pakistan. But more dangerous are the pitfalls of being a forced member of any of the two discussed blocks. Nevertheless, like all other state policies, foreign policy also needs to be dynamic in nature and demands sustained updating, considering all internal, external, politico-economic realities and security interests, which should be debated in both houses of the parliament rather than precious time being wasted on trivialities. Isn’t it time to be a leader among the Muslim counties (refer Islamic Summit Conference in Pakistan in 1974) rather than being towed to other countries pursuing their respective self interests with total disregard to Pakistan’s strategic predicament? Pakistan must continue to engage all Muslim and other friendly countries to support the Palestinian cause for a just and peaceful resolution, which has some similarities with the bleeding Kashmir issue. Pakistan should take a lead role in finding collective just resolution of the Palestine issue as per UN resolutions, cessation of atrocities by Israel, no more annexation, abandoning of Israeli settlements since 1967, with continued support to the Oslo Accord efforts towards a two-state solution as acceptable to the Palestinian people. The situation has remained a puzzle for Pakistan foreign policy strategists for decades and current development is the real test for concerned bureaucracy as well as national leadership. We must remember that if we try to please all, we please none.

August 19, 2020

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