Pakistan has been upright and principled in slamming US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. What happens next, however, given history’s amazing somersaults? What if the way ahead becomes less conducive to its best interests or, as they say, the political ground shifts from under its feet?
Consider a quick glance at how some seemingly fundamental beliefs have mutated in South Asia and the Middle East. There was a time when the mere announcement of a US arms sale to Saudi Arabia would send Israeli and Indian diplomats heading to the State Department to lodge their protests.
Giora Becher, Israel’s first envoy to India in 1992, wondered why the two didn’t share a cab. There was a time when Pakistan was courting Libya, not Saudi Arabia, as its oil-rich Arab ally. Lahore Stadium became Qadhafi Stadium in 1974. King Faisal mosque was inaugurated in Islamabad 12 years later. The war in Afghanistan changed Pakistan’s Arab alliance. The end of Cold War spurred the shift in India’s stance in the Middle East.
Today, India and Pakistan are close friends of Saudi Arabia — India, ironically, in a clear-cut way, and Pakistan, despite its military ties with Riyadh, or perhaps because of it, in a less self-assured way.
India avoided a straight answer on Thursday to the US somersault on the status of Jerusalem. The foreign ministry merely said it has an independent policy on the Middle East, one not determined by any other country. Deftly, it didn’t say what that policy was vis-a-vis President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Pakistan lodged its expected protest against the move, as did Saudi Arabia.
What will happen to Pakistan’s Middle East policy if the Saudis were to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, while still officially protesting against Trump’s Jerusalem posture? The question may not be as outlandish as it might seem. By all accounts, unlike Pakistan, the Saudis have been quietly, though not secretly, supporting the surrender of at least part of Jerusalem to Israel as well as proposing the recognition of the Jewish state.
The noise today’s stoutly pro-American Saudi government is making over Trump and Jerusalem — without rebuking him as it did Barrack Obama’s presidency — it all seems like a choreographed move with Israel. True, much of it has to do with checking Iran. However, that is not all there is to it.
The 1981 Arab summit in Fez (Morocco) collapsed over the eight-point “Fahd plan”, thus named after the pro-American Saudi crown prince’s plan that his current protege in Riyadh is pursuing, albeit in a more abbreviated form.
The plan required Israel to withdraw from the territories it captured in 1967, including East Jerusalem (but not the whole city), dismantling of settlements, recognition of the PLO as the Palestinians’ representative, establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and secure guarantees of peace to all regional countries.
Muammar Qadhafi, Hafez al Assad and Saddam Hussein opposed the plan and sent only their deputies to Fez. Their countries are in ruin today, not the least because they opposed the Riyadh-Tel Aviv-Washington nexus. Arafat died unexpectedly and Yemen’s Abdullah Saleh, who supported Saddam Hussein against the Saudi-approved US assault on Baghdad, was deposed.
At home the Saudi intelligentsia, middle class, and clergy were strongly critical of any proposal that recognised Israel. They were summarily cut to size in last month’s crackdown that Mr Trump has not disapproved of.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a powerful 30-something technocrat, has spearheaded an effort to fortify the relationship. He visited Washington in March to have lunch with President Trump, in a meeting his advisers proclaimed as a “historical turning point” in bilateral ties.
According to reports quoting the Jerusalem Post, several Israeli companies are in talks with the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia about business opportunities in the country’s planned “smart city”. On Nov 20, Britain’s Independent newspaper reported an Israeli minister as saying that Israel has had covert contacts with Saudi Arabia amid common concerns over Iran, said to be a first disclosure by a senior official from either country of long-rumoured secret dealings. The Saudi government had no immediate response to Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz’s remarks.
A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also did not respond immediately to a request by The Independent for comment.
There is an exaggerated perception that the Trump move would cause an earthquake in the Middle East. Consider the Arab world from the western flank to the east, and from its northernmost tip to the southern reach. In the west, Morocco was co-opted in the 1980s in a quid pro quo with Washington and Riyadh to fight the Western Saharawi Arab Republic (Polisario). To the south and east lie Sudan and Yemen in tatters and the north is symbolised by a totally dismantled Libya. How much leverage does Iran with Muslim countries have beyond Syria, in ruins, and Hezbollah on the Jerusalem outrage? That leaves Pakistan and a clutch of peripheral countries like Afghanistan and Malaysia bearing the brunt of any future inflection in their Palestinian policy.
A Saudi-like manoeuvre, if needed, will be more daunting for Pakistan with the rise of the Barelvi street power.