When Kamran Khan, a veteran Pakistan journalist and editor-in-chief of one of its most influential media groups, asked on Twitter: “Why can’t we openly debate pros cons of opening direct and overt channels of communication with the State of Israel?” he triggered thousands of responses – and not all of them were florid denunciations.
It’s a clear sign that the once-taboo subject of Islamabad probing potential relations with Israel has undegone a sea change – and is now entering mainstream discourse. The subject has been trending on Pakistani Twitter, and commentators have queried whether Imran Khan’s government itself is encouraging this debate – perhaps as a trial balloon before it considers any further steps.
Clearly, any such moves would encounter substantial grassroots opposition – as one critic of any normalization with Israel put it, “Pakistan is here to undo the project of Israel, not to award it legitimacy through recognition. [Modi’s] Hindutwa Zionists are the attack dogs but their real handlers sit in Tel Aviv” – but Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, beneficiary of the all-powerful military’s backing, may not consider that a deal-breaker.
Despite decades of intense hostility to any notion of recognizing the Jewish state, that opposition itself can be seen as counter-factual. Religious national movements led by secular founders; post-World War II countries partitioned within the British mandate in a hostile neighborhood; security states reliant on the U.S. support for survival – that’s the general theme of the frequently underlined commonalities between Pakistan and Israel, which have seen them being dubbed the “Muslim Zion” and the “Little Jewish Pakistan” respectively.
Even so, among those who have deemed preposterous the idea of any comparison between the only two religious nation-states in the world, were the founders of Pakistan.
Two months after successfully founding a nation-state based on Muslim nationalism, Pakistan’s first foreign minister Zafarullah Khan vehemently opposed the idea of one based on Jewish nationalism in the United Nations General Assembly session in October 1947.
His argument was that unlike Pakistan, a Jewish state in Palestine would be an “artificial” result of “immigration,” conveniently ignoring that the Indian Partition resulted in the largest mass migration in human history.
Meanwhile, while Zafarullah Khan, an Ahmadi Muslim, was leading the Islamic bloc against Israel at the UN, Pakistan was initiating its Islamization through the 1949 Objectives Resolution, which eventually resulted in the state excommunicating the Ahmadis. The Ahmadiyya community is now often touted as “Israeli agents,” traitors, on the basis of the sect’s theological differences over Islam.
In contrast, following Israel’s declaration of independence, its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion sent a telegram to the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in a bid to establish diplomatic relations. There was no reply.
Pakistan and paradox have gone hand-in-glove since the state’s inception. And Islamabad’s continued position on Israel is not immune to its bizarre contradictions.
For instance, on either side of the state losing its eastern wing and one half of its population following a heavy military defeat against India in 1971, which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh, the Pakistan Air Force was covertly involved in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973 – a conflict in which it had no geopolitical stake.
In the 70s, Pakistan was led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who according to his close aides had a “fanatical hatred” for Israel, but at the same time did not “conceal his dislike for Arabs.” At a time when Arab nationalism in general, and Palestinian nationalism in particular, was largely secular, Bhutto sifted the foreign policy of post-1971 Pakistan through the Islamist sieve, to counter India’s influence in South Asia and the Middle East.
While Muslim nationalist movements in Kashmir and Palestine would be usurped by radical Islam in the 1980s, with the backing of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, perhaps the greatest oddball was thrown by Islamist dictator Zia-ul-Haq, when he asked the Palestinian Liberation Organization to recognize Israel in March 1986.
The 1980s underlined the extremes of Pakistan’s paradoxical position on Israel. Where Pakistanis were volunteering in significant numbers to join the PLO, most notably during the siege of Beirut in 1982, the country’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, was working in tandem with the Mossad in CIA-led operations in Afghanistan.
It was in the 1990s, after the Oslo Accords, that the question over Pakistani recognition of Israel first began entering the mainstream. While there was the Islamist inertia against any such move – ostensibly in solidarity with Palestine – it gradually became evident that even supporting the Palestinians would require some engagement with Israelis, too.
The incident that illustrates this came in August 1994, when the then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto wouldn’t visit Gaza – because that visit would have required coordination with Israel, part of their agreement with the Palestinians.
While several unofficial diplomatic exchanges have taken place between Pakistani and Israeli officials over the decades, including the reported meetings of then-Israeli president Ezer Weizman with his counterpart Rafiq Tarar (in Ankara in 1988) and with then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (Johannesburg, 1994), it has always been evident in Pakistan that only a military ruler could make a public move on Israel. For the Islamist pressure groups that have aggressively resisted any talk on Israel are largely controlled by the Pakistani army.
That moment came 14 years ago to the day, when the Pakistani and Israeli foreign ministers held their first ever publically acknowledged meeting on September 1, 2005 in Ankara – over five decades after the creation of the two states. At the time, even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the talks between Pakistan and Israel.
The then-military dictator General Pervez Musharraf had been setting the ground for that meeting after opening the debate on relations with Israel in Paris in 2003. Over the past couple of decades he has continued to urge Pakistan to establish relations with Israel, a position he reiterated as recently as this year.
In a 2012 Haaretz interview, Musharraf explained the basic pragmatism behind his view: “Right from the beginning…we have been pro-Palestine. But I believe in realism and in assessing ground realities…A lot has happened since ’48, and one has to adjust…Policies should not remain constant. Israel is a fait accompli. A lot of the Muslim world have understood that and I know many Muslim countries have relations with Israel, whether above board or covertly…Pakistan also needs to keep readjusting its diplomatic stand toward Israel based on the mere fact that it exists and is not going away.”
While the past decade and a half since that meeting in Ankara, the interactions between Israel and Pakistan have largely been limited to counterterror intelligence and arms deals, there has been an energetically renewed debate in Islamabad over recognizing Israel over the past 12 months.
A tweet last October by Haaretz English editor Avi Scharf sparked rumors of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu secretly visiting Islamabad. In February this year, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv that Pakistan wants “normal ties” with Israel.
What has prompted this reaction in certain quarters is the Arab world’s refusal to openly back Pakistan’s position on Kashmir amidst the ongoing crisis with India, as exemplified by the UAE following other Arab states in giving Indian PM Narendra Modi its highest civilian award.
While the award had been announced in April, the timing of the move – at a time when there are fears of the Modi-led Hindu nationalist Indian government increasing its persecution of Muslims – has, for many, has broken the mirage of global Muslim unity.
In February this year, when India was engaged in aerial warfare with Pakistan, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation had also invited New Delhi as the “guest of honor” at its Abu Dhabi meeting.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi, is effectively laying the ground for a potential move on Israel, when he noted that UAE’s decision is based on the Gulf state’s own assessment of its national interest. He even said “international relations are above religious sentiments.”
Another senior minister, Fawad Chaudhry, recently tweeted in Urdu that “certain sections in Pakistan are more worried about Iran and Arabs. Narendra Modi’s relations with these states should provide a lesson to such people that nothing is bigger than your own nation. Your own borders are sacred, not the (Muslim) Ummah…”
The argument – even if still voiced by a significant minority – goes: if the Arab states, including Palestine, are actually enhancing their relations with India despite its violations in Kashmir, what possible obligation does Pakistan have to not even acknowledge Israel? If Gulf Arab states are cosying up to Israel, despite its behavior towards the Palestinians, why should Pakistan, alone, keep waving the boycott flag?
Indeed, it is no coincidence that such a debate has popped up on mainstream Pakistani media in the immediate aftermath of Imran Khan’s meeting with Donald Trump, and growing Saudi ties with Israel.
Pakistani leaders from Benazir Bhutto to Pervez Musharraf have maintained in the past that any move Islamabad makes on Israel would need to be in coordination with the Arab states. Furthermore, almost the entirety of Pakistan’s backdoor dealings with Israel have been owing to Islamabad’s subservience to the U.S.
With Pakistan reaffirming its status as Saudi Arabia’s newest client state during Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Islamabad in February, and the U.S. using the financial bailout carrot to push Pakistan into complying with Washington’s interests in the region, the conditions required to make a formal move on Israel are there.
Given the criticism in Pakistan over the state’s inaction over India’s annexation of Kashmir, the government can actually sell its recognition of Israel as a bid to “counter India.” In journalist Kamran Khan’s words, “High time Pakistan counter nefarious Indian designs with bold foreign policy moves.”
Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) ruling party are bound to pay some domestic political price for tentative normalization, especially owing to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that have engulfed him since his first marriage to Jemima Goldsmith. But if the lack of outrage against the state’s nonchalant inaction over Kashmir is anything to go by, it is unlikely that there would be large-scale anti-Israel parades and demonstrations.
Former president Musharraf’s positive statements about ties with Israel clearly echo the views of Pakistan’s corridors of power, perhaps the most salient indicator that Islamabad’s ruling class are encouraging this talk is that it’s the leaders of the PTI, a party completely reliant on the military for support, who are engaging in such a sensitive subject.
And there’s another powerfully telling sign that the spike in discussion of this issue has backing from the top. The same Pakistani media discussing in unprecedentedly positive terms the possibility of relations with Israel faces state censorship that has never been more stringent, under whose conditions it can’t cover even the slightest dissent against the ruling establishment.
Although tentative steps towards ties with Israel will likely have to wait till Saudi Arabia formalizes relations with Israel, given how that particular relationship is developing so swiftly, coupled with Washington and Riyadh pushing for the isolation of Iran, it seems clear that the next formal meeting between Pakistan and Israel won’t take another five decades.
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist and a correspondent at The Diplomat. His work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Foreign Policy, Courrier International, New Statesman, The Telegraph , MIT Review, and Arab News among other publications. Twitter: @khuldune