Recognizing Israel: Any Asian Volunteers?
The question for Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is not whether either country will recognize Israel, but when and who will go first.
For the past two years, Saudi Arabia was believed to want a Muslim state in Asia to recognize Israel first. Asian recognition would give the kingdom a welcome fig leaf.
Sheer numbers, as expressed by population size, was one reason. Compared to Saudi Arabia’s 35 million people, Pakistan has a population of 221 million, Indonesia 274 million, and Bangladesh 165 million.
Likely more important was the expectation that potential mass protests against a move toward recognizing Israel was more likely to erupt in Asia, where the margin for expressing dissent is greater than in much of the Middle East. Such protests, it was thought, would distract attention from the Saudis taking similar steps.
Saudi Arabia has signaled for some time that it would like to formalize its expanding informal relations with Israel, but needs a cover to do so. The kingdom has emphasized this in recent weeks, as it sought Israeli acquiescence in the transfer by Egypt to Saudi Arabia of sovereignty over two islands at the top of the Red Sea, and prepared for a possible visit by US President Joe Biden.
The visit is designed to improve relations strained since President Biden came to office over Saudi doubts about US security commitments, US demands include that the kingdom increase oil production in a bid to reduce prices and limit Russian energy exports, discussion of Saudi acquisition of Chinese missiles, and accountability for the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In advance of a visit, Saudi Arabia has not rejected a US proposal for a regional Middle Eastern air defense system that would include the kingdom and Israel.
Despite rampant speculation, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is unlikely to see Biden’s visit as a capstone for the recognition of Israel. More likely, MBS will continue to insist on a fig leaf in the form of progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or a major Asian Muslim-majority state going next.
Much of the attention focused in the almost two years since the Abraham Accords has been on Indonesia — not only because Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim majority state, but also because it is home to the world’s most moderate mass Muslim civil society movement, Nahdlatul Ulama.
Heads of Nahdlatul Ulama have visited Israel and met Israeli leaders multiple times in the past two decades, even though Indonesia and Israel have no diplomatic relations. The movement also has close ties to various American Jewish groups.
Similarly, the absence of formal relations between Israel and Indonesia has not prevented Israeli diplomats, scholars, and journalists from maintaining contact with Indonesian counterparts. Nevertheless, Indonesia has rebuffed both the Trump and the Biden administration’s requests to move towards recognition.
Indonesia’s refusal may not come as a surprise. However, suggestions that Pakistan, despite its close ties to Saudi Arabia, may strike a deal with Israel come out of left field. Religious ultra-conservatism is woven into the fabric of that society, and at least some state institutions. Moreover, antisemitism is rampant in Pakistan.
Nonetheless, a recent visit to Israel by a delegation of Pakistani activists seeking to promote people-to-people contacts has sparked anger and debate in Pakistan. The group, which met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, included American and British Pakistanis, prominent Pakistani journalist Ahmed Qureshi, and Fischel BenKhald, a Pakistani Jew.
“Without at least an overt nudge from powerful quarters, no Pakistani journalist could make this public trip to Israel and return safely,” said London-based Pakistani journalist Hamza Azhar Salam.
That did not stop Pakistani state television from firing Qureishi.
“The good news is, we today have the first, robust and rich nationwide debate in Pakistan on establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. This is huge,” Qureishi said.
Many Pakistanis, led by ousted prime minister Imran Khan, saw the visit to Israel as part of an effort by Pakistan’s powerful military to forge closer ties to the Jewish state — a move Khan appears to have considered when he was in office.
Pakistani political analyst Saad Hafiz recently argued that Pakistan’s recognition of Israel would earn it the support of the Biden administration for continued International Monetary Fund (IMF) aid. Hafiz also reiterated that Pakistan could benefit from Israeli water conservation technology.
Pakistanis and Israelis have links in other ways. For example, many Pakistanis offer their services on Fiverr, an Israeli marketplace for freelance professionals.
Degrees of Saudi cooperation with Israel and Pakistani feelers contrasted starkly with legislation passed in the last two weeks by the Iraqi parliament criminalizing contact with Israel, and by the Houthi government in Yemen that outlawed contact not only with Israel but also with Jews.
Pakistan is unlikely to follow Iraq or the Houthis. Even so, “it is unlikely that Pakistan’s fragile coalition government has the credibility and time to take the politically risky decision to open dialogue with Israel, especially with Khan snipping at its heels,” Saad said. “Yet, bold decisions are needed for Pakistan to compete in a changing world.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.