Israeli-Pakistani Normalisation: Green Light From India?

-P.R. Kumaraswamy, Research Fellow, Harry S. Truman Research Institute,Israel


India took more than four decades to establish full and normal diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. In taking this step in January 1992, it became the last major non-Arab and non-Islamic power to move closer to Israel.1 Likewise strong domestic pressures compelled Sri Lanka to adopt a vacillating and at times unpredictable policy towards Israel. While others were re-examining their erstwhile opposition towards Israel, Colombo moved in the opposite direction in 1990 and terminated security cooperation with it.2 Though non-Islamic, both states have a signficant Muslim population which has been an important calculation in their Israel policy. Under this circumstance, can Pakistan move closer to Israel? As states created with an explicit purpose of safeguarding the interests of religious minorities through the creation of sovereign political entities, both countries have more similarities than commonly acknowledged.3 It would be argued here that establishment of relations between the Jewish state of Israel and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan would be beneficial not only to these two states but also to India.

Israeli-Pakistani normalisation, however, is complicated by the pronounced and prolonged Muslim antagonism towards the Jewish state as well by the accentuation of Pakistan's Islamic identity. Any significant movement towards normalisation would be conditioned by a host of developments, including the progress in the Middle East peace process. The Oslo Accord has substantially changed the Middle East landscape and a small segment of the Pakistan elite has been openly suggesting re-examination of the traditional policy.4 Various Pakistani leaders, including Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, had publicly indicated that a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement could enable and facilitate Pakistan to reconsider its erstwhile position towards Israel.5 The establishment of an independent Palestinian state is often mentioned as an important condition for progress on the diplomatic front. For a long time, various countries, including India and China, linked diplomatic relations to Israel adopting certain changes in its policy toward the Palestinians. They, however, opened diplomatic missions in Israel before these conditions were fulfilled. Pakistan need not be an exception to this general trend. When both countries realise that normalisation would benefit and enhance their regional interests, the status quo would be abandoned.

In tune with the general trend among the Islamic countries, Pakistan has not formally recognised the Jewish state. Having to do so half a century after the formation of Israel, there are a few options before Pakistan. In the case of India and Turkey, the recognition of the Jewish state was not followed by formal diplomatic relations. Even though it granted recognition in March 1950, Iran kept its relations under wraps. Without a formal peace treaty, Jordan has maintained close relations with both Labour and Likud governments in Israel. The absence of diplomatic relations did not inhibit China from conducting and concluding military transactions with Israel. Pakistan, thus, could recognise Israel without diplomatic relations, establish clandestine relations without formal recognition or simultaneously recognise and establish relations with Israel. Normalisation of relations between Israel and Pakistan thus largely hinges on Islamabad and its ability and willingness to reverse its erstwhile rhetoric and adopt a pragmatic foreign policy.


As such it is natural that any relationship between Israel and Pakistan would have far-reaching consequences upon India's policy vis-a-vis the Middle East. It would be difficult to argue otherwise. This essay would examine the possible ramifications of such a relationship upon India. The primary concern here is more focussed. Will an Israeli-Pakistani normalisation hinder or enhance India's diplomatic options? Should India endorse or throttle Israel from moving closer to Pakistan? However, before examining these issues, it is essential to discard two motions. One, normalisation would be a "conspiracy" against India; and two, India could and, hence, should prevent Israel from coming closer to Pakistan.

Would normalisation be a conspiracy against India? Though tempting, conspiracy theories do not enhance one's understanding let alone interests.6 A conspiracy theorist is guided by the power of imagination rather than verifiable facts. Beyond sensational headlines and momentary glory of "innovation," conspiracy theories do not guide sane foreign policy formulation. However, "Zionist collaborator" has been a conventional tool for many rulers in the Middle East and elsewhere to discredit their internal and external rivals. Even when India did not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel, Pakistan has perceived and portrayed India's intentions in conspirational terms. "Hindu-Jewish" and "Brahman-Zionist" conspiracies against Pakistan as well as the Islamic world have been a constant theme in Pakistani portrayal of Indo-Israeli relations. Such negative portrayal resurfaced recently following India's decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.7

Nations do not become friends or allies merely to undermine a third party and relations made along such lines would be temporary arrangements or marriages of convenience. It is essential to understand that any relations between Israel and Pakistan would be primarily aimed at promoting their respective national interests. It would be a realisation that for both parties the absence of relations is more harmful than advantageous. Furthermore, diplomatic relations per se do not indicate the close relations between any two countries. Kuwait had an Embassy in Baghdad when President Saddam Hussein invaded the Gulf Shiekhdom in August 1990. Effective foreign policy implies the ability of a country to accommodate different, at times conflicting, interests both outside and inside the country. For instance, while Turkey's military establishment seeks close relations with Israel, its political leadership looks to Iran as a regional ally. Likewise, there were perceptible differences between India's Finance and External Affairs Ministries over the question of New Delhi's strategy towards the indefinite extension of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).8 Its newly found relations with the Jewish state have not prevented India from seeking out close political and economic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. While New Delhi has committed itself to the Middle East peace process, Tehran has vowed to undermine it. For its part, its desire to seek close economic as well as military relations with India has not affected the Israeli drive for similar moves towards China. In short, "having political and economic interactions with a state does not make that state your ally."9

Furthermore, can India prevent an Israeli-Pakistani normalisation? What is the extent of its influence in the region? Its Sri Lankan experience in late 1980s has exposed the limitations of its attempts to influence South Asian policy vis-a-vis Israel.10 Besides political will, India lacks the ability and means to affect Pakistani or Israeli policies towards one another. Contrary to the portrayals in the Indian media and far from official claims, even five years after normalisation and a host of political visits, India's impact in Israel has been limited if not non-existent. Only natural calamities and human disasters catapult India to public attention and visits by Indian leaders rarely make it to the inside pages of the media. Various Indian and Israeli government agencies and companies have signed over 100 Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs). However, if the implementation part of these "declaration of intentions" is an indication, these are no more than photo opportunities for domestic consumption. The bilateral trade that currently stands at $500 million, is still dominated by a single commodity: diamonds.11 In short, India does not have the economic, political or security leverage that would compel Israel to adjust its policies. Even the highly acclaimed visit of President Ezer Weizman last December has not significantly altered this reality.12

The reasons are not difficut to fathom; some are systemic and some are peculiar to Israel. Notwithstanding its aspirations to be a great power, India is a marginal actor in the international arena. The recent attempt to secure the non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council was not the only occasion when the leadership has overestimated India's position. In the post-Nehru era, the political leaders developed a habit of confusing rhetorical statements and declarations for policy. Furthermore, the inability to evolve a comprehensive Middle East policy in the post-normalisation phase, perennial delays in the decision making process, prolonged unfamiliarity with the intricacies of Israel's domestic and foreign policies, conventional bureaucratic wisdom of dealing only with those in the governments even in democratic environments and a general reluctance to take initiatives have a negative impact upon Indo-Israel relations. As a result, India managed to undermine the window of opportunity created by the January 1992 decision.

Benefits to India

If one discards the conspiracy theories as well as India's ability to influence the course of events, a possible Israeli-Pakistani normalisation would bring in one significant benefit to India. It would facilitate India to lessen the impact of the Pakistan factor in its foreign policy and adopt a more balanced and complex attitude towards the outside world. Not needing to present its rivalry with Pakistan as its principal plank, it would be free to develop a non-apologetic policy towards Israel and other countries in the region.

(a) Non-Apologetic Middle East Policy

Pakistan has been the central component and at times an overwhelming determinant in India's foreign policy.13 This is more acutely felt in India's Middle East policy. The Khilafat struggle14 that initiated modern political involvement with the Middle East also signalled the arrival of Islamic influences in India's foreign policy. The most vociferous demand for the restoration of the Caliphate abolished by Kamel Ataturk came from Indian Muslims. Conscious of the opportunity provided by this agitation to wean the minorities away from the British, Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress adopted and endorsed a blatantly communal demand. Since then, India largely perceives the Middle East through an Islamic prism. If the Muslim League was the rival during the pre-independence years, Pakistan assumed this position after 1947.15 For long, countering Pakistan became the principal agenda for Indian missions in the region and both made their "non-relations" with Israel as a primary means of promoting their respective interests among Arab and Islamic countries.

Accentuated by the problem over Kashmir, both countries looked to the Middle East for political support. If Pakistan relied on its Islamic credentials to promote its interests in the region, India was keen to emphasise its secular credentials and forged close ties with Arab nationalists like Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.16 Indian leaders often underscored the "similarities" between Israel and Pakistan and reiterated their opposition to states being formed on the basis of religion. In recent years, Pakistani writers have been arguing that India's traditional support for the Arabs and Palestinian cause is a farce and a camouflage for its clandestine relations with Israel. In spite of Pakistan's repeated endeavour to project its Islamic identity, the Arab states were generally lukewarm towards an Islamic bloc. Even the decisive setback suffered by secular Arab nationalism following the June War of 1967 did not alter this basic Indian premise. For most of the countries in the region, India and its stable political leadership appeared more attractive than the unknown potential of Pakistan. Some countries like Saudi Arabia had reservations over Pakistan's Islamic credentials while others such as Egypt were wary of Pakistani willingness to join Western sponsored military alliances. However, Pakistan did figure prominently in India's Middle East diplomacy and its hesitation in granting recognition to the Jewish state and prolonged delay in formalising the relations are indicators of this consideration. In the words of one Indian academic, "India's main problem all these years...has not been the Arab-Israeli dichotomy but the Indo-Pak incongruities. The latter have stymied India's policy--and Pakistan's as well--in a measure that few are willing to admit."17

The 1992 decision remedied an anomalous situation towards the region. Normalisation provided an opportunity for India to develop a complex Middle East policy based on reciprocity. While some of the Third World countries might view Israel merely as gateway to Washington, Israel provides India a strong political leverage vis-a-vis the Middle East. The host of official visits and meetings between the two countries do provide a framework for bilateral relations.18 There is one disturbing trend. There is a greater Indian reluctance to maintain high level political contacts with Israel. The visits of a number of Indian as well as Israeli leaders were either postponed or cancelled largely due to New Delhi's political considerations. There are indications that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made an unsuccessful bid to visit India during his state visit to the Far East. Even the visit of Weizman was originally slated for early last year and was probably postponed due to the impending Lok Sabha elections. Likewise it took prolonged persuasion from the military establishment and two years of bureaucratic procrastination before the arrival of an Indian military attache in Israel.

These are indications that India is yet to fully integrate Israel into its Middle East policy. Like the American State Department, the foreign policy establishment is largely staffed by Arabists and a significant number of those posted in Israel have previously served in, or would be going to, Arab countries. Historical legacy, economic and geo-strategic considerations necessitate a pro-Arab stand.19 This is partly due to difficulties facing Israel to identify and integrate itself as a Middle Eastern country. As a result, every suggestion emanating from its mission in Israel would have to weigh against possible repercussions in other parts of the region. Even well meaning proposals and suggestions are naturally buried in the bureaucratic muddles and inevitably lead to delays and indecisions. The creation of a separate desk in the Ministry to exclusively handle Israel and countries in the region that have peace agreements or cordial relations with it, could significantly reduce the friction.

However, any decision by Pakistan to move closer towards Israel, would eliminate the need for India to be apologetic about its Middle East policy. Apparently some of the countries in the region took exception to India's decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.20 As post-Oslo Yasser Arafat is unable to accuse others of collaborating with the "Zionist enemy," conspiracy theories would lose their relevance. For its part, India would have to abandon its traditional policy of projecting its support to the Arab cause as the principal means of promoting its regional interests. Reliance on its secular credentials would be insufficient to evolve any meaningful and sustainable relations in the Middle East. It would have to evolve a new policy based on strong economic interests and common security concerns. Moreover, it would be able to seek a relationship with Israel that would go beyond containing or combatting Pakistan. Apprehensions over Pakistani endeavours have inhibited India from articulating its interests in forging close ties with Israel. Not in need of explaining or justifying its relations, it would be free to evolve a strong security relationship with Israel. Since threat perceptions are a function of potentials rather than intentions, it would have to examine the non-conventional ambitions and capabilities of a number of countries in the region. In short, political relations between Pakistan and Israel would indeed facilitate and encourage strong security relations between India and Israel.

(b) Great Power Ambitions

In recent years India has been explicit, some might say unabashed, about its great power ambitions. This aspiration has manifested itself in its desire for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. In a significant departure from the past, this has become an important component of India's foreign policy and relations. While there can be differences of opinion over national priorities, merits of the claim or the modus operandi, great power aspirations are legitimate. Moreover, the present international power structure is a relic of World War II and needs to be updated to reflect the rapid political and economic changes during the last fifty years. This status, however, has a price tag. By definition a great power implies the willingness and ability of a country to shoulder certain additional responsibilities towards the international community, make difficult decisions and adopt more pronounced foreign and security policies. While other states can be content with pronouncements, it is often expected to choose between two bad options and act decisively. It effectively presents its particular concerns as regional and global problems and enlists the support of other countries. It has not unduly worried about inconsistencies or internal contradictions. It aspires to occupy the political and not moral high ground. It has a well-defined audience and is able as well as willing to convince, cajole and if necessary pressurise them to adopt a particular course of action or desist from it.

India's aspirations for great power status, however, are severely undermined by its preoccupation with Pakistan. It cannot be recognised as an Asian power, while it is preoccupied with its rivalry with a relatively smaller and less powerful South Asian neighbour. While it would be too naive if not irresponsible to ignore the importance of Pakistan, India's foreign relations cannot become a hostage to this. There is an in-built obsession about Pakistan. It has been a touchtone in India's foreign policy. New Delhi's proximity towards a country is invariably measured by that country's less then friendlier attitude towards Pakistan. Even Israeli friendship is measured by this litmus test. In the words of one former Indian diplomat:

"Despite our consistent and principled support to the Arab cause in Palestine and despite our distance from, and absence of diplomatic relations with, Israel, that country remained supportive of India on issues relating to the latter's territorial integrity and to Jammu and Kashmir."21

India's inability to develop a more pragmatic relationship with Washington even after the end of the Cold War is a reflection of this obsession with Islamabad. It is essential to understand that foreign relations are not a zero-sum game and many Western powers, including the US, aspire to maintain friendly relations with India as well as Pakistan. Foreign policy is not about rights and wrongs but about effective exploitation of an inherently competitive, complex and mostly unfriendly environment. Moreover, since the late 1980s, it has been customary for foreign dignitaries to express their support for India's position vis-a-vis the Simla Accord, Pakistan's nuclear ambitions or militant violence in Kashmir. Such friendly statements are made while they are visiting India or hosting Indian leaders and very rarely on neutral occasions. To a large extent, they are no more than polite gestures and should be treated as such. A great power needs a world view beyond South Asia and as long as Pakistan occupies a central position in India's foreign policy and security considerations, great power status would remain an elusive dream.


Any suggestion to adopt a positive attitude towards possible Israeli-Pakistani normalisation cannot ignore certain inherent impediments. Visionary leadership has been singularly absent in the post-Nehru era. For over five decades, Pakistan occupied a central role in India's foreign policy and it would be too difficult to modify this approach. Inherent human reluctance to change is natural if not advisable. As a result, any reports or suggestions of Pakistani presence in, or contacts with, Israel lead Indian missions in the region and elsewhere to hectic diplomatic activities. Even an innocuous radio report raises the fervour. A more pragmatic approach towards such a normalisation faces certain additional difficulties.

One, Narasimha Rao's decision to establish diplomatic relations with Israel did not go well with certain segments of the population. There was opposition both within his government and the Congress Party. In the words of J.N. Dixit who was India's Foreign Secretary when the decision was announced:

"The Prime Minister discussed this crucial issue with senior cabinet colleagues on (or around) 23 January (1992). The only person who maintained a sulking silence after murmuring some initial doubts was (Human Resources Minister) Arjun Singh. Arjun Singh felt that this decision might affect Muslim support for the Congress and went on to imply that establishing relations with Israel would be a departure from the Nehruvian framework of our foreign policy."22

Military cooperation with Israel evokes even harsher criticism. Any suggestion that "India will tackle this threat (from Pakistan) with Israeli expertise or experience, sends the wrong signal to many people both at home and abroad."23 As such, Pakistan's friendship with Israel would revive erstwhile arguments against India establishing ties with Israel. Understanding India's commitment to secularism, some might perceive it as coming together of two "theocratic states" and even urge the government to reconsider the 1992 decision.

Two, the traditional pro-Arab position is further enhanced by a general asymmetry in the intelligentsia's perceptions of, and indifference towards, the internal situations in various countries of the region. Contrary to popular perceptions, the Arab world is not monolithic and notwithstanding public statements and declarations, countries of the region do not pursue a common position vis-a-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict or other problems. Political Islam as it is understood at present is not monolithic. Even those who question Israel's human rights record conveniently ignore the situation in other parts of the region. Issues such as internal rivalries, the legitimacy and accountability of the rulers, the rule of law and the lack of transparent governance in numerous Middle Eastern countries rarely elicit the attention of the academia. The treatment of ethnic, religious, linguistic and religious minorities among various Arab and Islamic countries rarely draws their attention.

In spite of these difficulties and resistance, it is essential to realise that Pakistan moving closer to Israel would be in India's long-term interests. Its newly found relations with the Jewish state have not affected India's policies towards countries that are hostile to Israel and in similar vein, India should accept the possibility of Israel developing closer relations with Pakistan. Such a pragmatic and far-sighted view would enable India to develop a serious political, economic and strategic modus vivendi with the countries of the Middle East. It would too tempting to dismiss suggestions for a positive Indian attitude towards a possible Israeli-Pakistani normalisation as another Western conspiracy to undermine India's interests and well-being. Patriotism is not a euphemism for insane ramblings. India cannot aspire to be a great power and yet act like a South Asian power. Israel-Pakistani normalisation could provide an opportunity for India to re-examine its position and priorities.