• Saleem Qamar Butt

Revisiting No-No Land

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. There is also a strange warming up of relations between the KSA and Israel, since both consider Iran as a common foe in the Middle East. The situation has remained a puzzle for Pakistan foreign policy strategists for decades. The emotional attachment of the Pakistanis with the Palestine issue notwithstanding, the majority in Pakistan is ignorant about the details. Therefore, in order to develop a cogent response to the riddle, a brief overview of the Palestine-Israel conundrum is considered imperative.

Israel is the world's only Jewish state, located just east of the Mediterranean Sea. The Palestinians, who are the Arab population that hails from the land Israel now controls, refer to the territory as Palestine, and want to establish a state by that name on all or part of the same land. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is over who gets what land and how it is controlled. Though both Jews and Arab Muslims date their claims to the land back a couple of thousand years, the current political conflict began in the early 20th century. Jews fleeing persecution in Europe wanted to establish a national homeland in what was then an Arab and Muslim-majority territory in the Ottoman and later British Empire.

After the Arab Palestinian economy collapsed and 250,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled, on 14 May 1948, the day before the expiration of the British Mandate, David Ben-Gurion, the head of the Jewish Agency, declared "the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel”. The Arabs resisted, seeing the land as rightfully theirs. An early United Nations plan to give each group part of the land failed and Israel and the surrounding Arab nations fought several wars over the territory. Today's lines largely reflect the outcomes of two of these wars, one waged in 1948 and another in 1967. The West Bank is a chunk of land east of Israel. It is home to 2.6 million Palestinians and would make up the heart of any Palestinian state. Israel took control of it in 1967 (Israel fought a war with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan) and has allowed Jewish settlers to move in, but Palestinians (and most of the international community) consider it illegally occupied Palestinian land. Jerusalem is a city that straddles the border between Israel and the West Bank. It is home to some of the holiest sites in both Judaism and Islam and so both Israel and Palestine want to make it their capital. How to split the city fairly remains one of the fundamental issues dividing the Israelis and the Palestinians. Gaza is a densely populated strip of land that is mostly surrounded by Israel and is peopled almost exclusively by the Palestinians but it is currently under Israeli blockade.

Settlements of Jews in West Bank since 1967 are generally considered to be a major impediment to peace and considered a usurpation and colonization of Palestinian land by the world at large, including Pakistan. 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. There are large, mistreated Palestinian refugee communities in all of Israel's neighbours except Egypt. Outside its immediate neighbours, the three most important regional states in the conflict are Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Though American support for Israel is massive, including billions of dollars in aid and reliable diplomatic backing (the US has given Israel $118 billion in aid over the years or about $3 billion per year). Half of all American UN Security Council vetoes have blocked resolutions critical of Israel). The main reasons for Israel being a darling of the USA include the influence of the pro-Israel lobby (thanks to AIPAC and now Jarred Kushner, as an influential Jew son-in-law in the White House), considering Israel a stable democracy and a key buffer against Soviet influence in the Middle East during the Cold War.

Now Israel is regarded by the USA as a partner for fighting terrorism. Some 83% of the world's countries and almost every country that isn't Arab or has a Muslim majority recognizes Israel's legitimacy and maintains 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. Global public opinion at present is generally more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, creating real concern among the Israelis that an international boycott movement, called BDS, could pick up some support. Israel is quite unpopular worldwide. 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.

Despite available precedence of some meek behind-the-scene diplomatic engagements with Israel in 2005, even a fresh deliberate cost-benefit analysis will result in favour of Pakistan revisiting its Israel policy. 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 as well as from ultra-hyper religious bigots aspiring for a political lifeline in Pakistan. 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.

Pakistan must continue to engage all Muslim and other friendly countries to support the Palestinian cause for a just and peaceful resolution, which has so many similarities with the bleeding Kashmir issue. Farsighted prudence demands that no such step be taken that dilutes Pakistan’s principled stand in line with UN resolutions both with regard to the Palestine and Kashmir causes. Recognition of Israel’s legitimacy should preferably be decided at the OIC level rather than as an individual state’s decision and be linked with resolution of the Palestine issue as per UN resolutions, cessation of atrocities by Israel and its abandoning of settlements since 1967, with continued support to the Oslo Accord efforts towards a two-state solution if acceptable to the Palestinian people. The writer is a senior retired Army officer with rich experience in military and intelligence diplomacy and strategic analysis. He can be reached at sqbutt61@gmail.com


Published in South Asia News

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