Musharraf's Opening to Israel

by Graham Usher | published March 2, 2006

For background on Musharraf's subversion of the Pakistani constitution, see Shahnaz Rouse, “Elections in Pakistan: Turning Tragedy Into Farce,” Middle East Report Online , October 18, 2002.

For more background on the MMA, see Kamran Asdar Ali, “Pakistani Islamists Gamble on the General,” Middle East Report 231 (Summer 2004).

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When George W. Bush arrives in Islamabad on March 4, 2006, his will be the first visit to Pakistan by a US president since Bill Clinton touched down there in March 2000. Aside from the coincidence of the month, the circumstances could hardly be more different. In 2000, Clinton stayed for barely five hours, refused to be photographed with the then recently installed military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and proceeded to lecture the general on Pakistan’s continued sponsorship of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamist insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Clinton also took the unprecedented liberty of a televised address to the Pakistani people, warning them that their unelected leader’s policies on Kashmir and nuclear proliferation would make Pakistan “even more isolated, draining more resources away from the needs of the people, moving even closer to a conflict [with India] no one can win.” Two years before, the US had imposed sanctions on Pakistan and India for conducting tests of nuclear weapons.

In 2006, Bush is scheduled to stay for a day. He will be photographed at every opportunity with his “buddy and friend President Musharraf,” and he will sign an investment treaty, the latest in a raft of economic accords initialed by the two leaders in the last four years. As for Kashmir, any solution “must be acceptable to Pakistan, India and the citizens [sic] of Kashmir,” he said, alarming Indian officials who worried that the US now favors an independent Kashmir (it was clarified later that this is not the case).

On nuclear proliferation, Bush has already lifted the Clinton-era sanctions on both countries, and on March 2 he signed an agreement with India that would afford New Delhi access to US civilian nuclear technology without first renouncing nuclear weapons or joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty. There is no talk of such a deal with Pakistan, but Bush wants both countries’ backing in dealing with another country he suspects of pursuing the bomb. “India, Pakistan and the US must send a united message to Iran that the development of nuclear weapons is unacceptable,” Bush told the Pakistani press. “Iran must get a unified message from all of us.” John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, went a step further, commenting before the World Jewish Congress on March 1 that both India and Pakistan had acquired nuclear weapons “ legitimately,” which he contrasted with Iran’s putative ambitions. Neither Bush nor Bolton said anything about Israel, which, like India and Pakistan, is a nuclear nation that will not sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

“Enlightened Moderation”

What separates the two presidential visits—and accounts for their different receptions by Pakistanis—is the attacks of September 11, 2001. At that decisive historical moment, Musharraf changed sides in the “war on terror” and has been showered with US largesse ever since. Democracy in Pakistan is in only slightly better shape than it was in 2000. But democracy in South Asia is not high on the US agenda. “I’ve had a discussion with the president about his vision for a democratic Pakistan. I believe he is headed on the road to reform. He understands the pressure being put upon him,” Bush said. Asked whether that pressure included any US demand to end his dual roles as president and army chief of staff, Musharraf was succinct. “No,” he replied.

Bush vows that his visit will proceed despite a suicide bombing that killed a US diplomat and two others in Karachi on March 2. He also arrives during a spate of demonstrations in Pakistan that have so far seen 60,000 mobilized in Karachi, major street violence and pillage in Peshawar and Lahore, and the deaths of five people, all of them civilians. The protests ostensibly concern the “sacrilegious” caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published in Danish and other European newspapers. But they have become perhaps the most serious domestic challenge to Musharraf’s rule since he seized power in a military coup on October 1999. The protests are led by the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA), a parliamentary coalition of Pakistan’s Islamist parties that once was a political mainstay of the general’s regime.

No longer. “The protests will continue until Musharraf stands down, the army ends its interference in civilian life and constitutional government in Pakistan is restored,” said Qazi Hussein Ahmad, leader of the MMA in Parliament. As for Bush, “our message to you is that the Islamic nation hates you and you are not welcome in Pakistan,” said Maulana Fazlur Rahman, leader of the Jamaat-e Ulama Islam, one of the main constituent parties of the Islamist alliance.

The MMA’s first breach with Musharraf came in December 2004, when he reneged on a promise to give up his “army uniform.” But the breach has become a chasm, following laws aimed at curbing the influence of Pakistan’s 30,000 madrassas, increased “coordination” with US forces in hunting down Taliban and al-Qaeda suspects on Pakistan’s northern border with Afghanistan (such as the March 1 operation in Waziristan that, according to the Pakistani army, left 45 dead), and a host of other “un-Islamic” policies.

Of these, the most ideologically galling for the Islamists was the meeting in September 2005 between Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri and his then Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom—the first official rendezvous between the world’s second largest Islamic republic and only Jewish state. Musharraf justified the meeting in an interview with Newsweek on January 29. “We are for the creation of a Palestinian homeland but we accept Israel's reality as a state. I feel we can contribute more strongly to this cause by talking to Israel…. And I think this pullout from Gaza (in August 2005) was a major decision by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. We thought this needed to be encouraged.”

Israel has long sought diplomatic ties with Pakistan. But the driving force behind the public rapprochement was Musharraf. For the last two years, he has been calling on his people to recognize the fact (if not yet the state) of Israel as part of his “enlightened moderation” policy, in which Muslim states are urged to deal with extremists in their midst while the West is urged to deal with the causes of extremism, above all, in his view, the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the conflict in Kashmir.

But while the language is new, the concerns behind Musharraf’s “opening up” to Israel are as old as Pakistan itself: the need to project political Islam as the cornerstone of Pakistani identity, muscular (and now nuclear) rivalry with India in South Asia and the need to square both with a pro-US foreign policy.

Remove the Star of David

Unofficial Israeli-Pakistani contacts have been in existence for as long as the two states. One reason is the similarities between their respective births. The two nationalisms were defined and refined in struggles against British colonial occupation; the two entities were demarcated by British-engineered partitions, as well as legitimized by UN resolutions; and the two states were and are quite self-consciously ideological, sectarian projects, with political Islam the unifying principle of Pakistan and Judaism (as mediated by Zionism) that of Israel.

Another unifying factor was the Cold War. Both Israel and Pakistan were on the US side in the post-1948 world order, presenting themselves as bulwarks against the spread of communism in their respective backyards and acting against any expression of indigenous Arab or Asian nationalism that might threaten US interests. Pakistan, for example, was one of the few Muslim states to back the British-French-Israeli invasion of Nasser’s Egypt in 1956.

But Pakistan’s Islamic credentials—as well as its increasing economic and political dependence on the Arab Gulf states following the secession of Bangladesh (once East Pakistan) in 1971—prevented any open relationship. Attitudes were also hardened by Israel’s conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, an occupation Pakistanis see as one with India's occupation of Kashmir, a parallel strengthened by the outbreak in 1989 of an indigenous Kashmiri insurgency against Indian rule, two years after the first Palestinian intifada began in Gaza.

But while the Arab-Israeli conflict pulled the two countries apart, regional ambition drew them together. In the early 1970s, India embarked on its nuclear program, and it was not long before Pakistan responded in kind. One of Islamabad’s many fears, aside from the prospect of deepening US sanctions, was that Israel, in connivance with India, would strike Pakistan’s nuclear facilities in Kabuta, as it had struck Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981.

At a quiet meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in 1985, Israel and Pakistan’s deputy chiefs of staff agreed that neither nuclear state comprised a “security risk” to the other. Israel always viewed Pakistan “more as a potential interlocutor than as a potential threat,” commented Shmuel Bar, a veteran of Israel’s intelligence services, in the September 22 edition of the online publication Bitter Lemons International . The feeling was mutual.

Common ground was also found following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Over the next years, Israel was not only active in currying diplomatic support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan, but also supplied arms to the Islamist fighters, through the agency of the CIA and with the blessing of Pakistan’s dictator, Zia ul Haq. Zia’s only caveat was that “the Star of David be removed from them.”

This cooperation set the tone for Israeli-Pakistani relations until 2001, regardless of who was the incumbent in Israel or whether a civilian or military regime ruled Pakistan. The most important contacts were between the Mossad and Pakistan's shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, and the traffic was two-way. Pakistan would pass on intelligence about the Gulf states and the nuclear ambitions of Iran and Libya, whose programs Pakistani scientists had helped to build. Israel would provide everything from training for Pakistani leaders’ security guards to intelligence on India, with whom it has enjoyed full diplomatic relations since 1992.

But relations were always covert and discriminating. Former Pakistani Foreign Secretary Niaz Niak recalls one occasion when the Mossad offered to sell Pakistan equipment from South Africa’s abandoned nuclear program “on the grounds that the Israelis did not want it falling into the hands of the ‘communist’ African National Congress.” The offer was declined.

Allies, Not Adversaries

Then came the September 11 attacks. Overnight, Musharraf’s regime found itself on the wrong side in the war on terror. In short order, the general was told by Washington to end Pakistan’s support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, to crack down on al-Qaeda and other extremist outfits that had found shelter in Pakistan, to cut off supplies for insurgent groups in Indian-controlled Kashmir and to begin a peace process with New Delhi.

Following the exposure in 2003 of Pakistan’s covert nuclear technology sales to Iran, Libya and North Korea, Musharraf was also instructed to shut down the clandestine network headed by Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan and share any pertinent intelligence with Washington.

In return, the US lifted sanctions on Pakistan, restored economic and military aid, and announced an additional $3 billion aid package to be spread over three years. Pakistan’s outstanding debt owed to the US and other Western nations was forgiven or restructured. Finally, Bush, in early 2005, urged Pakistan to join the “world effort to help the Palestinians develop a state that is truly free.… President Musharraf can play a big role in helping achieve that objective.”

Over the next months, Musharraf played the part. Prior to authorizing his foreign minister’s handshake with Shalom, he cleared the meeting with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and the PA. He followed it with a “chance” encounter with Ariel Sharon on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, as well as an address to the American Jewish Congress that was received with a standing ovation.

Typically, he kept Pakistani citizens out of the loop. Parliament learned of the foreign ministers’ meeting only after it happened. The Islamists were outraged, but most Pakistanis shrugged their shoulders. “Musharraf has calculated that since the extremist right is going to oppose him anyway, why not disregard this opposition and embark on a course of action giving Israel de facto recognition—something that half the Arab world has done already,” commented one Asian analyst. But the rapprochement is not simply theatrics. Musharraf has real objectives in pursuing it, though they have little to do with Israel, the Palestinians or peace in the Middle East. His aims have everything to do with India and the US.

One aim is to counter Israel’s burgeoning military relationship with India, which includes, says a Pakistani general, the sharing of intelligence on Pakistan’s nuclear program. There is nothing especially new about this fear. What has turned the fear into paranoia is Pakistan’s perception that India has become the US strategic “choice in the region,” to be nurtured as a counterweight to China. In this strategic environment, says Niak, the taboo on dealings with Israel appears to the regime to be not only outdated, but also self-defeating. “Rather, the perception is that increasingly open channels to Israel, including the transfer of strategic (nuclear) technology, will help restore the strategic balance in South Asia.”

Musharraf’s second objective is to ameliorate Pakistan’s image problem in the West, which is nowhere more acute than in the US. The road to redemption leads through warmer relations with Israel, his advisers say, informed by their absolute conviction that “the Jewish lobby” controls not only Congress and the White House, but also the military-industrial complex and the media. “The US media outlets are controlled by the Jewish lobby,” says Niak. “So to get a better image across we need relations with Israel. This will facilitate the image of Pakistan as a moderate Islamic country. The belief is that Pakistan has been unnecessarily alienating the Western media due to its stance on Israel.”

Finally, and most importantly, Pakistan is rattled by the July 18, 2005 US-Indian accord which essentially gives a “special status” to India’s nuclear program, and which may be ratified during Bush’s stay in India. Perhaps Islamabad’s greatest fear is that India will be promoted in Western strategic thinking to a “front-rank” nuclear power, leaving Pakistan mired in the distrusted second rank. The solution, says Pakistani analyst Mahmood ul Khan, is reaching out to Israel, not as an adversary (one of the rationales for developing the bomb Pakistan stated to its Arab backers), but as an ally .

“Both Israel and Pakistan have a problem of acceptability in the international community as nuclear weapons states,” he says. “But were they to launch a joint bid, they could succeed in getting approval in the US for an accord similar to the one signed with India. The reasoning is that Israel could provide the muscle of the Jewish lobby in Washington, and Pakistan could provide the cover for Israel and the US against the notion that double standards are again at work. It would allow India, Israel and Pakistan to be brought into the nuclear non-proliferation architecture under a revised Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

Illusory Benefits

Are any of these projected dividends of the rapprochement with Israel likely? The most probable answer is no.

Pakistan’s view of the Indo-Israeli relationship overlooks the fact that it is a commercial as much as a military pact. Today, Indo-Israeli trade stands at a whopping $4.5 billion, with India purchasing $2 billion in arms from Israel’s high-tech industries. In return, Israel supplies upgraded weapons systems of Russian vintage, precisely what the Indian army requires, given its reliance on Soviet-era aircraft, artillery and tanks. The idea that one foreign ministerial meeting will neutralize or counterbalance this robust partnership requires much imagination.

It is true that Pakistan has an image problem in the West, but it will take more than the clout of the pro-Israel lobby to redress it. Musharraf’s UN sojourn in September was a public relations disaster, despite the rapprochement with Israel, which received little press coverage in the US. On the other hand, Musharraf’s comments to the Washington Post that Pakistani women’s claims of rape were a “money-making concern…to go abroad and get a visa for Canada” caused outrage among both Pakistani and US women’s groups. Because Musharraf denied making the remarks, which were captured on tape by the Post, his sentiments on this question turned into a week-long story.

Finally, an alliance between Pakistan and Israel in the teeth of a new Indo-US nuclear hegemony is also likely to be illusory. More likely is that Israel will maintain its preferred “vague and veiled” nuclear policy, with Washington sustaining the fiction. Pakistan will remain isolated, unable to shake off its dodgy status. If history is anything to go by, isolation could mean a new era of proliferation as Pakistan strives to keep up with the perceived Indian menace, auguring nuclear adventurism abroad ( a la A. Q. Khan) and renewed tensions with Washington.

The Pakistani people, still reeling from an earthquake that took 80,000 lives and destroyed thousands of schools, hospitals and homes, will bear the cost of the general’s renewed adventurism or an intensified arms race with India. That, at least, is one constant with the pre-September 11 world.

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