Israeli president Isaac Herzog has set the cat among the pigeons by telling an audience at Davos, Switzerland last week that it was an “amazing experience” to meet a delegation of Pakistani-Americans recently at home.
It took a couple of days for the political storm to hit Pakistan, but when it did, the Opposition lost little time in taunting the Shehbaz Sharif-led ruling coalition about trying to open up to the Jewish State and letting down the just cause of the Palestinians – against what the Father of the Nation, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah had ordained in 1948.
In Pakistan, two things are usually absorbed along with mother’s milk: The belief that Kashmir must become part of the country because it is a Muslim-majority state, no matter that Sheikh Abdullah threw in his lot with India in 1947. But Pakistanis have maintained the “Kashmir banega Pakistan” fiction for so long that they blindly believe it, even if the reality is totally different. The other belief the Pakistanis inherited in 1948 is about Palestine – which is, until the Palestinians get their own State, of which the Al-Aqsa mosque is an integral part, Pakistan won’t recognise Israel.
Despite the fact that several back-channels across the Pakistani military and political establishments have tried to open up ties with Tel Aviv for decades, no government in Islamabad is either brave enough or strong enough to see that the world has changed and that it might help the Palestinian cause to also talk to Israel.
Pakistan knows world has changed
For sure, the Palestinians need international support, especially against the Israeli military that often goes on the rampage in the name of self-defence and kills innocent people. The matter of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu-Akleh who was shot dead at point-blank range with armour-piercing bullets as well as her funeral procession broken up by Israeli soldiers, is one more shameful chapter in that history of occupation of the Palestinian territories.
But look at the manner in which the world has changed these last few years. Most notably, the Abraham Accords brokered by former US president Donald Trump in 2020 — it opened up formal diplomatic relations between Israel and the Gulf states of the UAE and Bahrain. That has been an incredible success story, with tourists going back and forth – seems Hebrew is the most popular foreign language after English these days in the UAE – which has spawned new confidence between Arabs and Jews.
Some of that confidence has filtered into Pakistan as well. A Jewish Pakistani citizen, Fishel Benkhald, became the first Pakistani to get official permission from the Imran Khan government to visit the holy Jewish sites. Recently, when Israeli president Isaac Herzog met a delegation of Pakistani-Americans in Israel, besides Benkhald, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Quraishi was part of the group. Quraishi works for PTV, the State broadcaster.
But all hell broke loose inside Pakistan since Herzog’s comments in Davos came to light. As Imran Khan and his Opposition leaders correctly surmised, Quraishi’s presence in the Pakistani-American delegation to Israel was a test balloon.
Certainly, both civilian and military establishments in Pakistan realise that some normalisation is necessary between the two ideological States. Especially at a time like this when Pakistan’s economy is bleeding and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is just another name for a Damocles Sword. How long can you put your thumb on your teeth in that peculiar South Asian way and say “katti”, or, I’m not talking to you?
But Shehbaz Sharif’s government has panicked. He seemed more interested in his Turkey travel anyway, his third visit abroad in the last two months. So journalist Ahmed Quraishi was sacked from PTV Monday night, while the Foreign Office muttered the same thing about not recognising Israel until the hapless Palestinians get a State.
Era of closer ties, secretly
Still, the rest of the Muslim world seems to be moving on. US President Joe Biden is planning to go to Riyadh and Jerusalem as part of his Middle East tour in end-June, and is sweetening a potential Israel-Saudi opening up with the transfer of two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia; the islands have been under Israeli and Egyptian control for some time.
Qatar, on the other side of the fence in the Gulf, has long hosted the Israelis. Meanwhile, along with the Pakistani-American delegation, Herzog also met a group of Moroccans.
“And I must say this was an amazing experience. We haven’t had a group of Pakistani leaders in Israel in such scope. And that all stems from the Abraham Accords, meaning Jews and Muslims can dwell together in the region…,” Herzog said.
Clearly, Herzog’s sentiment rings across the establishments inside Pakistan. Journalist Quraishi pointed to the hypocrisy in Imran Khan’s party, saying it was his government that gave Benkhald permission to travel to Israel. Moreover, PTI leader Shireen Mazari, in her previous job as director of the government-controlled Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, had refused to say one word in 2005 when her then-boss and foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri met his Israeli counterpart in Turkey.
Kasuri’s meeting with Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom in Turkey in 2005 ruled the waves. But that event was topped by a meeting, in the same year, between the all-powerful Pakistani president and army chief Pervez Musharraf and the equally powerful Israeli president and former soldier Ariel Sharon in New York.
“I was standing and he came in a group and shook hands with me,” remembered Gen. Pervez Musharraf, “…he asked me how I was, I asked him how he was. That’s very good.”
But Sharon soon fell into a coma, and by 2007 Musharraf’s fate was sealed when Pakistan’s lawyers stood up against his dictatorship – he had to soon flee Pakistan.
The rumours of ice being broken didn’t die. When Imran Khan was prime minister, Geo News reported that his aide, Zulfi Bukhari, a UK national, met Israeli officials, including Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, in Tel Aviv in November 2020 with official approval. The media had a field day quoting flight paths and manifests, despite fulsome denials by the government.
Pakistan in the corner
Cut to the present. In the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus, Israeli and Pakistani militaries sided with Azerbaijan. That is certainly par for the course for Pakistan because Azerbaijan is a brotherly Muslim nation, but Israel was playing a far more strategic game in its attempt to encircle Iran – which it believes sponsors terror groups like Hizbollah to carry out major terrorist attacks inside Israel.
Perhaps Pakistan believes that it’s not worth antagonising Iran, with which it shares a border and a long history by opening up to Israel. But Pakistan ably plays the Iranian balancing game by promoting a deep, brotherly friendship with Saudi’s sheikhs – a Pakistan retired army chief is often the head of the Saudi Arabia-led Islamic military coalition and Riyadh has offered huge bridging loans to bail out Pakistan’s economy for several years.
Even during Shehbaz Sharif’s recent visit to Riyadh, the Saudis agreed to roll over the existing $4.2 billion loan it had offered to Imran Khan (including $2 billion in deposits and a $1.2 billion oil facility for one year) and agreed to enhance the bailout to $8 billion.
With Mohammed bin Salman now likely to agree to Biden’s request to open up ties with Israel, Pakistan remains one of a dwindling group of nations that refuses to do so. Will moral principle have to be soon sacrificed at the altar of strategic reality or will Islamabad continue to hold firm?
Whatever happens, the Pakistan-Israel relationship, or the lack of one, will be one of the more interesting stories to follow in the coming days and months.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.