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Pakistan and Israel: 'Normalisation' a hard sell but a narrative is building

Pakistani opinion remains staunchly pro-Palestine, but economic dependence on Saudi Arabia could force world's second largest Muslim nation to follow Riyadh's lead
Protesters demonstrate in Karachi in August 2020 in opposition to the normalisation of diplomatic ties between the United Arab Emirates and Israel (Reuters)

An emerging media narrative in Pakistan is raising questions about its longstanding policy of recognition of Israel conditional on Palestinian statehood.

Opinion pieces in major newspapers, alongside guests on television talk shows and social media influencers, have opened a discussion about the prospect of unconditional recognition of Israel - something hitherto unimaginable in Pakistan, where rallies in support of Palestine can draw tens of thousands onto the streets.

The main trigger for the current round of commentary on the issue was a visit to Israel last month by a group of mostly US-Pakistani dual nationals who met Israeli President Isaac Herzog.

'Embracing a fascism-inclined nation would neither be a surprise nor a travesty. Many would say just do it'

Mahir Ali, Dawn newspaper

The visit was organised by an Israeli NGO called Sharaka, founded in the wake of the Abraham Accords that normalised relations between Israel and the Gulf states of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Sharaka describes itself as aiming to further improve relations between Israel and Muslim countries.

But the visit caused outrage in Pakistan when it emerged the delegation included a Pakistani television journalist, Ahmed Quraishi, who was not a dual national and for whom it was therefore prohibited under Pakistani law to travel to Israel.

Quraishi was fired from his job with the state broadcaster PTV. He says he and his family have been subjected to violent threats.

He has denied he was on a narrative-building mission but said he is happy the trip has opened a discussion about the prospects for a normalisation of relations between Israel and Pakistan.

“Pakistan's fledgling economic situation, and the geopolitical shift in the Middle East and other Muslim countries recognising Israel, will soon push Pakistan to decide where it stands,” he said.

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Quraishi also took aim at Imran Khan, accusing the former prime minister of “targeted harassment” after Khan criticised Quraishi at rallies in which he also said the current government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had been “tasked with recognising Israel”.

Khan, who was ousted from office in April, has accused the US of plotting against him with Israel and India. Senior Pakistani officials accuse him of promoting a conspiracy theory.

'Just do it'

Meanwhile, other Pakistani journalists have used the furore surrounding Quraishi to share their own views about the prospects for normalisation.

Writing in Israel’s Haartez newspaper, Kunwar Khuldune Shahid said Pakistan’s recognition of Israel was now “inevitable” because of Islamabad’s economic dependence on Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s own direction of travel towards normalisation under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Writing in response to Shahid’s piece in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, Mahir Ali noted historic similarities between Israel and Pakistan as “states carved out by colonial powers on a confessional basis”, which had decided to “attach themselves to Uncle Sam”.

Ali continued: “It’s perhaps worth noting that the fondness for Israel among the Arab Gulf despots has come to the surface in the wake of the Zionist state’s drift to the far right, with no illusions about a path back to the days when the illusion of an ideological divide was kept alive.

“It could be argued that Pakistan is at a similar stage of discarding the illusion of a military-civilian divide. Embracing a fascism-inclined nation would neither be a surprise nor a travesty. Many would say just do it.”

Such a radical shift in policy would not be readily accepted by most Pakistanis, nor would it be consistent with Pakistan’s longstanding support for Palestinian statehood, according to Kamal Alam, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank.

Alam told Middle East Eye: “It would be difficult for Pakistan to unilaterally take this decision. The ultra-conservative element in the country is very powerful, and there is a risk of them taking to the streets, while the country is already suffering from serious economic and financial problems.”

Palestine and Kashmir

Another complication, Alam said, is that public sentiment and government policy in Pakistan equates Palestine's quest for statehood with that of Kashmir, which has been partly under Indian control and a flashpoint for Indian-Pakistani tensions since partition in 1947.

“An unconditional nod of approval towards Israel would send a message that Pakistan as a state has given up on the Kashmiri cause too,” said Alam.

But while Pakistani public opinion remains largely opposed to normalisation, Alam said Pakistan’s military leadership was in favour of establishing diplomatic ties.

“The military and security services are more keen on the relationship but political parties are hesitant,” he said.

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“The military sees the India-Israel relationship as a threat. During the Arab-Israeli wars Pakistan was on the Arab side, but now that the Arabs are normalising the relationship, Pakistan's military and security services are thinking: why shouldn't we?”

He adds that the Pakistani intelligence agencies have on a few occasions passed on intelligence to Israel to prevent an attack on its interests in India.

In October 2009, according to a US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks, Pakistan's spy chief contacted Israeli officials to warn them of an attack on Israeli targets in India.

But Pakistan's political leadership would have serious reservations about pursuing formal relations, said Umar Karim, a fellow at the University of Lancaster studying issues around sectarianism in the Muslim world.

'Political suicide'

Karim told MEE: “It would be political suicide for any political party to unilaterally suggest acceptance of Israel. In the recent past, Pakistani politicians have normalised antisemitic language in describing the actions of, not only Israel, but also other political opponents within Pakistan.”

During Israel's bombardment of Gaza in May last year, Pakistan loudly opposed Israeli human rights violations, and Pakistan's then-foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi garnered support for the Palestinian cause by travelling with the Palestinian and Turkish foreign ministers to New York for a special UN session on the crisis.

During the same trip Qureshi was accused of repeating an antisemitic slur during a CNN interview in which he said Israel controlled the media through its connections and "deep pockets". Qureshi denied that the remark was antisemitic.

'The day the Saudis recognise Israel, Pakistan will follow soon after'

Kamal Alam, Atlantic Council

For decades, Karim said, Pakistan's politicians have diverted the blame for their economic, political and security failures on external elements, including Israel as well as India. 

“Before the age of social media, it would have been much easier [to recognise Israel],” he said.

“But now words and images travel much faster, Pakistanis are well aware of every atrocity committed by the Israelis against the Palestinians, [and] public opinion of Israel borders on hatred in Pakistan.”

In August 2020, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of cities across Pakistan to protest against the normalisation of relations between Israel and the UAE.

Should Pakistan’s own leaders choose to follow the Emiratis, Karim said they faced a real risk of provoking dangerous unrest.

“There could be violent protests, for days and months, a definite spike in incidences of terrorism," he said. "It would definitely attract the anger of banned extremist groups, which would likely target government officials, politicians, international NGOs, religious minorities, perhaps even western diplomats in Pakistan.”

But all analysts spoken to by MEE pointed to other factors beyond domestic opposition, which they said could have a greater impact on the future direction of Pakistan's relationship with Israel.

In November 2020, Imran Khan revealed that Pakistan had come under pressure from the US and other countries to recognise Israel. Asked whether he meant Muslim countries, Khan said: "There are things we cannot say. We have good relations with them.”  

Rumours within Pakistani foreign policy circles suggest Saudi Arabia was one of those friendly countries pressuring Khan's government.

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“Pakistan is the second most populous Muslim country [after Indonesia] and having them on the Saudi side would also take care of the conservative elements within Saudi society,” said Alam.

While Khan has been removed from office, his successor, Shehbaz Sharif, remains dependent on Saudi Arabian loans to keep Pakistan’s ailing economy - the country’s longtime strategic weakness - afloat.

And with US President Joe Biden due to visit Saudi Arabia next month with “the national security of Israel” on the agenda, Alam believes that where Riyadh leads Islamabad will follow.

“Biden's got a three-point agenda for the trip: Iran, Israel and oil. Saudi recognition of Israel is definitely on that list,” said Alam.

“The day the Saudis recognise Israel, Pakistan will follow soon after. Pakistan doesn't have an independent Middle East policy; they follow Saudi and US guidelines.”