Reverberations of the Kasuri-Shalom Meeting
By Dr Shireen M. Mazari

The Kasuri-Shalom meeting, for many reasons, has had a major impact both within Pakistan and externally. Coming almost immediately in the wake of the announcement that President Musharraf would be addressing the American Jewish Congress later this month in New York, it seemed to reflect perhaps an unnecessary haste by this country in seeking to alter a major foreign policy principle -- that of not recognizing the Zionist entity of Israel until the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. While the meeting itself does not signify recognition, it does signal a critical policy shift since earlier we had always been at pains to deny even informal meetings between Pakistani officialdom and its Israeli counterparts.
Given the deep commitment felt by the Pakistani nation for the Palestinian cause since the issue came to the fore, it has been difficult to accept the new direction of our policy on Israel in this sudden fashion. This is despite the fact that President Musharraf had begun a healthy and expansive debate some time ago on the issue of Israeli recognition. And perhaps it was assumed that we are able to accept sudden shifts of policy. After all, we did so on the Taliban. But there was a difference primarily because support for the Taliban had no deep roots in our civil society and, secondly, 9/11 provided the psychological shock for the official volte-face.
In contrast, the Kasuri-Shalom meeting took place with no major international shake up to have pushed us in that direction, and, most critically, it challenged the deep-rooted support for the Palestinians within Pakistani civil society. Of course, Israeli evacuation of Gaza was cited as a valid reason for rethinking our approach to Israel, but we cannot forget that Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and shows little intent of vacating it. Additionally, Israel is in the process of integrating the occupation of Jerusalem within the Israeli state and altering the demographics of the city. Finally, Israel has no positive policy on the return of refugees and other critical aspects of the Palestinian demands and the internationally accepted peace roadmap. Instead, Sharon is seeking, with American connivance, to create his own roadmap, which will offer the Palestinians a Bantu-type alternative of a non-viable and totally-dependent "state". That is why the Gaza pullout has a negative side to it.
This is why it makes little sense to recognize Israel at present and even official meetings like the Kasuri-Shalom one have too many costs and few benefits -- unlike the forthcoming Musharraf address to the American Jewish Congress which sends a clear message that we are not anti-Semitic, but opposed to the expansionist policies of Zionists and their occupation of Palestinian lands. That there is no harm in informal and non-publicized meetings between Israelis and Pakistanis is equally clear because there is a need to engage with the Israelis in the aftermath of the Palestinians' engagement with them and the recognition by many Arab and other Muslim states of the Israeli state. But a high profile meeting has more benefits for Israel than for Pakistan at this moment in time, because it does make recognition imminent rather than conditional. We must not underplay our value for Israel, given our status as a strong and nuclear Muslim state with influence and status within the Muslim World. We may presently be going through a psychological lack of confidence in assessing our place in the region and within the Muslim World, but we are seen as a critical regional and Muslim World player from outside -- and one that has the ability to hold out for its critical national interests, as reflected in the development of our nuclear capability.
That is why we need to ensure that on Israel we are not pushed into shifts by perceived US pressure or by an erroneous assumption that such shifts will undermine or stall the fast-paced Indo-Israeli strategic nexus. The latter is grounded in very real interests that exist between Israel and India, and the former will hardly undermine these simply because we have chosen to offer it recognition. As for Pakistan gaining similar access to military hardware from Israel, we should remember that the sale of critical Israeli weapon systems need US approval since they have a strong US technological component. That is why Israel was unable to sell the Phalcon radar system to China, but could do so to India. So we need to assess the direct benefits of recognizing Israel very carefully alongside the costs, and timing will be crucial.
The Arab World recognizes the importance of Pakistan within the Muslim World, and that is why there has been much discussion and comment in the Arab World on the Kasuri-Shalom meeting. Even though President Musharraf had stated that the Kasuri-Shalom meeting took place after being backed by the Saudi and Palestinian leadership, the Arabs have been taken by surprise. This was clear at a conference in Dubai that I happened to be attending almost immediately in the wake of the Kasuri-Shalom meeting. Because the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas had given his blessings to the meeting, it was strange to read in the Arab press, the statement of the Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister, Nabil Shaath, in which he declared that the Palestinian Authority was "worried" about the meeting "because it's not a good time to start relations with Israel.... It is not good to give Israel gifts before it really implements the peace process, not only in Gaza but in the West Bank and Jerusalem". In Dubai, Arabs gathered from around the Gulf were disturbed because they clearly seem to get succor from Pakistan's strong stance on the Palestinian issue. Even though some Arab states, including Egypt, had recognized Israel, there was as feeling that if Pakistan did so, their cause would be lost. That Iran and Malaysia are still amongst those that have not moved towards recognition was not sufficient comfort for them, and clearly, there is a psychological dependency on Pakistan by the Arab World though most would be loathe to admitting it! That is why they would like us to hold out as long as we can on the recognition issue.
The Kasuri-Shalom meeting has also reverberated in the Arab World on another count: It has made them realize their own weakness and vulnerability and they feel that Pakistan will talk to Israel from a position of strength that they do not possess. So the Arabs are confused because they are in no position, either morally or politically, to out-rightly condemn Pakistan's moves on Israel; but they are uncomfortable with these moves because they feel they will lose a strong pillar of support for the Palestinian cause. It is important for Pakistan to acknowledge this and make its demands on the Arab World accordingly. For too long we have allowed ourselves to be taken for granted when we do have a natural leadership role. We should not allow our internal problems to cloud the reality of our external strength within the Muslim World -- especially in our neighborhood of the Gulf. That is why it is equally important for us to take them along when we make our policy shifts on Israel. We are seen as a source of strength and we need to fortify this position, not undermine it for transient advantages.
(The writer is Director General of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. Courtesy The News)

 


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