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Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East

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The Middle East is the only region where all three kinds of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) have been used and developed. Accusations, allegations, but unfortunately blur information and data, with very limited open-source information about the possession and quantity of WMD in countries in this region represents further instability factor and creates uncertainty and tensions between rival countries.

There are 17 countries in the region: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Sometimes the political term also includes countries from South Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia and there exists various definitions which countries belong to the Middle East and which do not. In this report focus is on states which possess WMD. WMD on territory can be found in 6 countries, in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Israel and Syria. For the rest of the countries in the Middle East is not known to possess nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons programs. Globally accepted definition of WMD does not exist, but all include nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Even though all types of WMD are inhumane in its possibilities and consequences of usage, nuclear weapons are the one getting most of the attention. Today in the world more than 30 countries want nuclear power. The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) Report for 2013-2014 says that making fuel for nuclear power plants involves the same technology as making materials for nuclear weapons. Actions to reduce proliferation and security risks must be taken to prevent the dangerous spread of uranium enrichment or plutonium technology. The report pointed out that nuclear exchange is less likely, but many scenarios could lead to a catastrophic explosion. Another topic regarding nuclear weapons needs to be taken care of. The fact that today about 2.000 metric tons of weapons-usable nuclear materials remain spread across hundreds of sites around the globe with poor security creates concerns.

Many international arms control agreement have been reached since the existence of nuclear, biological and chemical WMD. With the threat posed by terrorism United Nations Security Resolution 1540/04 was accepted which affirmed that the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and their means of delivery constitute a threat to international peace and security. States are obliged to refrain from supporting by any means non-state actors from developing, acquiring, manufacturing, possessing, transporting, transferring or using nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and their delivery systems. On nuclear area steps have been made toward non-proliferation with the Partial Test Ban Treaty and prohibition of nuclear testing and the Non-Proliferation Treaty NPT that places restrictions. Important role playsInternational Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with its 164 Member States which promotes safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear energy. Under the NPT has a role of the international safeguard inspectorate. The use of nuclear weapons violates many international laws such as UN charter, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Geneva Convention, the Hague Convention and many others. In this segment among many others, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) which prohibits all testing of nuclear weapons is important.

Elimination of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction has shown as a hard task to accomplish. States usually do not publicly announce their stockpiles. Usually information comes from rival countries, public state representatives in speeches or reports and tasks. Verification has been hardly ever available. History has shown that possession of chemical or biological weapons is verified when country has used prohibited means in fighting, usually by international organizations. Most of the time there are speculations. In the field of the biological weapon reduction Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons (BTWC) as a global solution plays an important role. The Treaty prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, or acquisition of biological and toxin weapons, and mandates the elimination of existing weapons, weapons production material and delivery means.

For the third WMD, chemical weapons, Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) – Convention on the prohibition of the development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical weapons and on their Destruction is the important agreement watch over by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Both biological and chemical weapons have been used in the recent past and both arsenals are speculating if even known for most of the countries. Even though they have been used more as nuclear weapons, which were used in in the fighting only in the Second World War, they do not get so much public attention. Next table shows countries in the Middle East, possession of WMD and international obligations and commitments.

Country Nuclear weapon Biological weapon Chemical weapon Signatory NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons)

Signatory CTBT

(Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty)

Signatory CWC (Chemical Weapons Convention) Signatory BTWC (Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons)
Egypt No, only civil use – two nuclear research reactors Yes based on public opinion but no based on verification Suspected for maintaining capabilities Yes No ratification No No ratification
Turkey Host of 60 to 70 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons under NATO No possession No possession Yes Yes Yes Yes
Iran Ambitions to require some Possibility of dual use activities In the past Yes No ratification Yes Yes
Iraq No In the past / possibility of remains In the past/ possibility of remains Yes Yes Yes Yes
Israel Yes Possibly Possibly No No ratification No ratification No
Syrian Arab Republic No Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes

Egypt is one of the four countries that has neither signed nor acceded CWC and Israel is one of the two countries that have yet to ratify it. The NTI country report says that country’s civil nuclear program is relatively sophisticated compared to other countries in the Middle East, but still in development stages. Country signed the BTWC in 1972 but since no ratification has been made speculations about covert possession of biological weapon is presumed. Many western and Israelis report has been made on developing biological weapon, but no concrete evidence has been given so far. They are based on speeches of formal representatives of state without real background. Egypt official stance of not ratifying is concerns of Israelis nuclear weapon arsenal and that country do not possess nor seeks biological weapons. Blur is also an Egyptian chemical weapon arsenal and both poses and no poses are possible. The country had in history used chemical weapons during the 1960s conflict in North Yemen. Allegation of collaborating with Iraq and Syria to boost their chemical weapons has been made in the past. It stays unclear whether the country is still active and has an arsenal of both chemical and biological weapons on their ground.

On the other hand Turkey is also a party to the NPT, BTWC and CWC and is not known to own nuclear, chemical or biological weapons or programs. It peruses civilian nuclear technology. Country is part of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) umbrella and host from 60 to 70 tactical nuclear weapons on its strategically important territory.

Iran has an advanced nuclear program that in Iranian world is peaceful in nature. Even as a member of the NPT it failed to report everything to the IAEA and the possibility of developing all aspects of nuclear fuel cycle has caused international concern and even sanction imposed on the country. Countries stockpile is about 10.000 kg of low enriched uranium. Very little public information to determine whether biological weapons exist is available. Iran ratified the BTWC Convention. It is assumed that it has the capacity to produce biological warfare agents. In a war with Iraq, Iran suffered severe losses because of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. Iran ratified the CWC and has publicly acknowledged the existence of a chemical weapons program, but activities were terminated by the year 1997.

Much has been said about the Iraqi supposedly nuclear program and weapons. The nuclear weapons program was in Iraq dismantled by the IAEA from 1991 to 1997. U.S. and coalition forces began military actions against the country in 2003 based on a possession of nuclear weapons that was never found till this day. The country has extensively used chemical weapons against Iran and its Kurdish population in the past. The program was dismantled, but still last year there were reports that ISIS fighters had taken control over a former chemical weapons facility with sarin. It has also pursued offensive biological weapon capabilities until 1990s.

The only country in the Middle East that has not signed the NPT, which is the only binding commitment in a multilateral treaty to the goal of disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states, is Israel. The Treaty has 190 States parties, including five nuclear-weapon States. Unfortunately, conference on the 22 of May this year ended without a consensus and without a new action plan, among other things also because of discussions around the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East and its disagreement. Based on the NTI country report it is widely believed that Israel have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium for 100 to 200 nuclear warheads. It has a nuclear arsenal, but the capacity remains unclear. The country has not made a lot of international bounding commitments in the WMD area since it is not a state party to the CTBT, CWC or BTWC. Israel also remains reluctant to so called Middle East Weapon of Mass Destruction Free Zone. Israel is opposed to every country in the neighborhood that has nuclear ambitions. It believes Iran should be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons and in this order they have carried out a covered operation to stall Iran’s nuclear program with disruption of equipment supply, computer viruses such as Stuxnet and Flame and even the accusation of assassination of Iranian scientists have been made. In the past air strikes against Iraq’s Osiraq Reactor in 1981 and Syria’s suspected reactor near Al-Kibar in 2007 were carried out in order to protect itself in the Arab world. It exists also the possibility that country poses chemical and biological weapons, based on official reports about military training, defensive biological weapon research and education of employees in the military, with advance chemical industry.

A non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT and CWC suspected of nuclear weapons ambitions, now caught in civil war possibly has and did possess WMD. No nuclear or biological weapons in the country seem to exist but chemical does. Syria had in the past refused to renounce its chemical weapons program until Israel abandons its nuclear. The country has an arsenal of chemical weapons, although was dependent on foreign suppliers at the beginning also from Egypt and then with international isolation had development gone further. Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons in the ongoing civil war. Allegations of chemical weapons used in Homs, Damascus and Aleppo caught wider public attention. The chemical weapon program was counter balanced to Israelis conventional warfare and in recent events to fight citizens of the Syrian Arab Republic with agent Sarin. The events lead to international control and commitment of Syria to join the CWC. According to OPCW’s findings the Syrian arsenal includes 1.000 metric tons of Category I chemical weapons, 290 tons of category II chemicals and 1.230 of category III delivery systems. Some speculation still exists about hidden chemical weapons in the country.

Before humanity and society difficult challenges of abolishment, prohibition and controlling of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons lies and waits for the right solution. Is the world going to be better without WMD, can it even be abolished and if not, what can and should we do about it? When the world has a common answer to those questions victims of nuclear, chemical and biological warfare will become a distant past. Until then the danger and uncertainty posed by WMD still lingers.

Teja Palko is a Slovenian writer. She finished studies on Master’s Degree programme in Defense Science at the Faculty of Social Science at University in Ljubljana.

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Middle East

Saudi religious soft power diplomacy eyes Washington and Jerusalem first and foremost

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Geopolitics is written all over Saudi religious soft power efforts. Nowhere more so than when it comes to Israel and Jews because of the growing importance of security cooperation with the Jewish state and the influence of the Israeli lobby in the United States, the kingdom’s most important yet problematic security partner.

In the latest move, Saudi Arabia ensured that it would be the first stop on the first overseas trip by Deborah Lipstadt as US special envoy to combat anti-Semitism.

“Lipstadt intends to build on the profoundly important Abraham Accords to advance religious tolerance, improve relations in the region, and counter misunderstanding and distrust,” the State Department said in a statement. The department was referring to the accords by which the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan established diplomatic relations with Israel in the waning days of US President Donald J. Trump’s administration.

Ms. Lipstadt said that Saudi religious soft power diplomacy had created an atmosphere in which she could discuss with government officials and civil society leaders, who in the kingdom inevitably are likely to be linked to the government, “normalising the vision of the Jews and understanding of Jewish history for their population, particularly their younger population.”

Saudi Arabia has had a particularly troubled attitude towards Jews even though an older generation of Saudis in regions close to Yemen recall a Jewish presence in the first half of the 20th century.

Moreover, in the days when Israelis were barred from travelling to most Arab countries, Saudi Arabia also tailored its visa requirements to bar Jews.

European foreign ministers planning at the time to pay official visits to the kingdom would at times confront demands that Jewish journalists be dropped from the group accompanying the official.

Some American Jews who had filled out Jewish as their religion on Saudi immigration forms would have them returned with the word Jewish replaced by the term Christian.

That began to change long before the rise of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Mr. Bin Salman has accelerated the policy change. Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia announced that Israeli business people would be granted entry into the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has also allowed Jacob Yisrael Herzog, a US-born rabbi resident in Israel, to visit the kingdom several times to attempt to build Jewish life publicly. Some Jewish critics have charged that his bombastic approach could backfire.

Moreover, in a slow two-decade-long, tedious process, Saudi Arabia has made significant progress in scrubbing its school textbooks of anti-Semitic and other discriminatory and supremacist content.

To project Saudi Arabia as a moderate forward-looking nation and improve the kingdom’s tarnished image, particularly in the United States, Mr. Bin Salman has met with American Jewish leaders. Many of those leaders are willing to give Saudi Arabia a pass on its abuse of human rights and still weak track record on religious tolerance to advance the cause of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The crown prince has also turned the Muslim World League, once a prime vehicle for the Saudi government funding of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism globally, into a public relations tool for propagating Saudi religious tolerance.

The league’s head, Mohammed al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister, led a delegation of Muslim religious leaders on a ground-breaking visit in January 2020 to Auschwitz, one of Nazi Germany’s foremost extermination camps for Jews.

Earlier this month, he organized a Forum on Common Values among Religious Followers in Riyadh. Participants included 47 Muslim scholars, 24 Christian leaders, 12 rabbis, and 7 Hindu and Buddhist figures.

The timing of Ms. Lipstadt’s visit is significant. It comes weeks before an expected pilgrimage to Riyadh by President Joe Biden to tackle strains in the strategic relationship between the two countries.

Tensions have emerged over the degree and reliability of the US commitment to Gulf security, Saudi oil production policy in the wake of US and European sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine, Saudi technological cooperation with China, and Mr. Biden’s belief that Mr. Bin Salman was responsible for the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Moreover, the visits of Mr. Biden and Ms. Lipstadt come as hopes are fading that talks in Vienna between world powers and Iran will succeed in reviving the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear programme. A failure is likely to increase regional tension.

The spectre of a failure has driven increased regional cooperation between Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and Israel.

At the sharp end of confronting Iran, Israel unveiled its newly adopted Octopus Doctrine this month. The doctrine expands Israel’s aiming at Iran’s nuclear, missile and drone programmes by increasingly attacking targets in Iran rather than primarily on battlefields like Syria.

Barbara Leaf, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, put Ms. Lipstadt’s visit in perspective when she told Congress last week that Mr. Biden hoped to achieve agreement on a roadmap for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel during his visit to the Middle East this month. US officials admit that it will be a lengthy process rather than a head-on lovey-dovey affair, as was the case between Israel and the UAE.

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.

Saudis want to meet us, talk, and rub shoulders with us. They want to learn. I kept getting inquiries. There is incredible potential for cooperation between the Saudi people and Saudi companies and Israel,” said Israeli businessman Eyal Waldheim who visited the kingdom in May travelling on a non-Israeli passport.

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China and the Middle East: Heading into Choppy Waters

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China could be entering choppy Middle Eastern waters. Multiple crises and conflicts will likely shape its relations with the region’s major powers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey.

The laundry list of pitfalls for China includes the fallout of the Ukraine war, strained US relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Turkish opposition to Finnish and Swedish NATO membership, the threat of a renewed Turkish anti-Kurdish incursion into northern Syria, and the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

Drowning out the noise, one thing that becomes evident is that neither the Gulf states nor Turkey have any intention of fundamentally altering their security relationships with the United States, even if the dynamics in the cases of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey are very different.

Saudi Arabia recognizes that there is no alternative to the US security umbrella, whatever doubts the kingdom may have about the United States’ commitment to its security. With next month’s visit to Saudi Arabia by President Joe Biden, the question is not how US-Saudi differences will be papered over but at what price and who will pay the bill.

Meanwhile, China has made clear that it is not willing and not yet able to replace the United States. It has also made clear that for China to engage in regional security, Middle Eastern states would first have to get a grip on their disputes so that conflicts don’t spin out of control. Moves to lower the tensions between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt by focusing on economics are a step in that direction. Still, they remain fragile, with no issue that sparked the differences being resolved.

A potential failure of negotiations in Vienna to revive the Iran nuclear deal could upset the apple cart. It would likely push Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia to tighten their security cooperation but could threaten rapprochement with Turkey. It could also heighten tensions in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq, where Iran supports a variety of political actors and militias. None of this is good news for China, which like other major players in the Middle East, prefers to remain focused on economics.

The dynamics with Turkey and Iran are of a different order. China may gleefully watch Turkish obstruction in NATO, but as much as Turkey seeks to forge an independent path, it does not want to break its umbilical cord with the West anchored in its membership in NATO.

NATO needs Turkey even if its center of gravity, for now, has moved to Eastern Europe. By the same token, Turkey needs NATO, even if it is in a better position to defend itself than the Gulf states are. Ultimately, horse-trading will resolve NATO’s most immediate problems because of Turkish objections to Swedish and Finnish NATO membership.

Turkey’s threatened anti-Kurdish incursion into northern Syria would constitute an escalation that no party, including China, wants. Not because it underwrites Turkish opposition to Swedish and Finnish NATO membership but because with Syrian Kurds seeking support from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Turkish and Iranian-backed forces could find themselves on opposite sides.

Finally, Iran. Despite the hot air over Iran’s 25-year US$400 million deal with China, relations between Tehran and Beijing are unlikely to fully blossom as long as Iran is subject to US sanctions. A failure to revive the nuclear agreement guarantees that sanctions will remain. China has made clear that it is willing to push the envelope in violating or circumventing sanctions but not to the degree that would make Iran one more major friction point in the already fraught US-China relationship.

In a world in which bifurcation has been accelerated by the Ukraine war and the Middle East threatened by potentially heightened tensions in the absence of a nuclear agreement, Gulf states may find that increasingly the principle of ‘you are with us or against us’ becomes the norm. The Gulf states hedged their bets in the initial months of the Ukraine war, but their ability to do so may be coming to an end.

Already Saudi Arabia and the UAE are starting to concede on the issue of oil production, while Qatar is engaging with Europe on gas. Bifurcation would not rupture relations with China but would likely restrain technological cooperation and contain Gulf hedging strategies, including notions of granting China military facilities.

Over and beyond the immediate geopolitical and security issues, there are multiple other potentially problematic issues and powder kegs.

A prominent Saudi-owned newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat, recently took issue with an increasingly aggressive tone in Chinese diplomacy. “China isn’t doing itself any favours … Chinese officials seem determined to undermine their own case for global leadership … Somehow Chinese officials don’t seem to recognize that their belligerence is just as off-putting…as Western paternalism is,” the newspaper said in an editorial.

China’s balancing act, particularly between Saud Arabia and Iran, could become more fraught. A failure to revive the nuclear agreement will complicate already difficult Saudi Iranian talks aimed at dialling down tensions. It could also fuel a nuclear, missiles, and drone arms race accelerated by a more aggressive US-backed Israeli strategy in confronting Iran by striking at targets in the Islamic republic rather than with US backing in, for example, Syria.

While Chinese willingness to sell arms may get a boost, China could find that both Saudi Arabia and Iran become more demanding in their expectations from Beijing, particularly if tensions escalate.

A joker in the pack is China’s repression of Turkic Muslims in its north-western province of Xinjiang. A majority of the Muslim world has looked the other way, with a few, like Saudi Arabia, openly endorsing the crackdown.

The interest in doing so goes beyond Muslim-majority states not wanting to risk their relations with a China that responds harshly and aggressively to public criticism. Moreover, the crackdown in Xinjiang and Muslim acquiescence legitimises a shared opposition to any political expression of Islam.

The problem for Muslim-majority states, particularly those in the Middle East, is that the era in which the United States and others could get away with the application of double standards and apparent hypocrisy in adhering to values may be drawing to a close.

China and, for that matter, Russia is happy to benefit from the global South’s reluctance to join condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine and sanctions against Russia because the West refuses to apply the principle universally, for example, in the case of Israel or multiple infractions of international and human rights law elsewhere.

However, China and Middle Eastern states sit in similar glasshouses. Irrespective of how one judges recent controversial statements made by spokespeople of India’s ruling BJP party regarding the Prophet Mohammed and Muslim worship, criticism by Muslim states rings hollow as long as they do not also stand up to the repression of Muslims in Xinjiang.

For some in the Middle East, a reckoning could come sooner and later.

Turkey is one state where the issue of the Uighurs in China is not simply a far-from-my-bed show. Uighurs play into domestic politics in a country home to the largest Uighur exile community that has long supported the rights of its Turkic brethren in China and still boasts strong strands of pan-Turkism.

These are all elements that could come to the fore when Turkey goes to the polls next year as it celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Turkish republic.

The question is not whether China will encounter choppy waters in the Middle East but when and where.

Author’s note: This article is based on the author’s remarks at the 4th Roundtable on China in West Asia – Stepping into a Vacuum? organised by the Ananta Aspen Center on 14 June 2022 and was first published by the Middle East Institute in Washington DC.

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Recognising Israel: Any Asian volunteers?

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The question for Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is not whether either country will recognise Israel but when and who will go first.

For the past two years, Saudi Arabia was believed to want a Muslim state in Asia, home to the world’s three most populous Muslim majority countries, to recognise Israel first. Asian recognition would give the kingdom, home to Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, a welcome fig leaf.

Numbers, as expressed by population size, were one reason. Compared to Saudi Arabia’s 35 million people, Pakistan has a population of 221 million, Indonesia 274 million, and Bangladesh 165 million.

That was one reason Saudi Arabia preferred an Asian state to take the lead in following the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, who recognised Israel in the least two years.

Likely more important was the expectation that potential mass protest against a move toward 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 Custodian of the Holy Cities 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 Mr. Biden came to office over Saudi doubts about US security commitments, US demands that the kingdom increase oil production in a bid to reduce prices and limit Russian energy exports, Saudi acquisition of Chinese missiles, and 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 defence system that would include the kingdom and Israel.

Mujtahid, an anonymous tweeter who has repeatedly provided insights into the secretive workings of the House of Saud in recent years, reported that Saudi Arabia and Israel had created a “situation room” on the 14th floor of an Istanbul office building to advance the establishment of diplomatic relations. He said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s close aide, Saud al-Qahtani, headed the Saudi side.

Despite rampant speculation, Mr. Bin Salman is unlikely to see Mr. Biden’s visit as a capstone for recognition of Israel. More likely, he 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 UAE-led quartet forged relations with Israel focused on Indonesia. Not only because Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim majority state and its foremost Muslim democracy 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 and travelling to the archipelago nation or Indonesian pilgrims from touring the Jewish state. 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 society and at least some state institutions. Moreover, anti-Semitism 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, reflecting how attitudes pertaining to Israel have evolved in the world’s only Muslim nuclear power,” said London-based Pakistani journalist Hamza Azhar Salam.

That did not stop Pakistani state television from firing Mr. 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 hug,” Mr. 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 Mr. Khan appears to have considered when he was in office.

His aide, Zulfi Bukhari, reportedly visited Israel for a meeting with then head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen. Mr. Bukhari has denied travelling to Israel.

The visit by the Pakistani activists came two years after two Pakistani academics called in an op-ed in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper for Pakistani-Israeli cooperation in resolving the South Asian state’s water stress and upgrading its agriculture sector.

Similarly, Pakistani political analyst Saad Hafiz recently argued that Pakistan’s recognition of Israel would earn it the support of the Biden administration and the Israeli lobby in Washington for continued International Monetary Fund (IMF) aid for his country’s battered economy. Mr. Hafiz also reiterated that Pakistan could benefit from Israeli water conservation technology.

“The US leadership, Congress, and the powerful pro-Israel lobby could support the resumption of financial assistance to Pakistan as an incentive if it agrees to normalize ties with Israel, “ Mr. Saad said.

Pakistanis and Israeli 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 (Imran) Khan snipping at its heels,” Mr. Saad said. “Yet, bold decisions are needed for Pakistan to compete in a changing world.”

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