A debate about establishing relations with the Jewish state has once again taken off in the South Asian nation. Here’s where Pakistanis fall on the matter.
When he was a student many years ago, Zain Zaidi, 34, joined a charged mob of young men who marched down a street, stomped their feet and shouted slogans against Israel.
He was there when a crowd burned the flag of the United States, the ‘Great Satan’ who backs the Jewish state, in one such protest.
Growing up in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city, he, like many others, couldn’t escape seeing the Israeli imprint on daily life. Across the country in public colleges and universities, religious groups had painted the Israeli and American flags on the ground so people could walk over them.
But Zaidi is now a sales executive in a multinational IT firm and he has travelled enough to make him question some of his earlier beliefs.
“Is there any weight in what we say about the rights of Palestinians? Does anyone listen to us? Shouldn’t we try to fix our own house first?” he tells TRT World.
This reasoning is resonating with others. In the past week, some senior Pakistani journalists have openly suggested that Islamabad should consider normalising ties with Tel Aviv to remain in step with shifting geopolitics in the Middle East.
Pakistan is one of a few countries that has no diplomatic relations with Israel. The Pakistani passport is the only one in the world that explicitly states that you can travel anywhere using the document — except Israel. During the Apartheid era, South Africa was marked alongside Israel in the passport.
The renewed interest in the question of Israeli recognition follows revelations by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, that his government is under pressure to do so.
What has further fuelled the speculation are reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly met Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, on November 22.
Since September, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Sudan, have established normal business and diplomatic relations with Israel in what is being seen as a major win for Netanyahu and a setback for Palestinians.
Two other Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan, have already had full diplomatic relations with Israel for more than two decades.
The much talked about two-state solution, which envisages a separate country for Palestinians, is nowhere in sight. In a controversial move, the US has already recognised Jerusalem, a holy city for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, as Israel’s capital.
A so-called Peace Plan pushed by the outgoing administration of US President Donald Trump handed large tracts of territory in the occupied West Bank to Israel. Palestinians hope to include the West Bank and Gaza in a future state of their own.
Prime Minister Khan has been unambiguous in his views: “I have no second thought about recognising Israel,” he said in an interview with the Middle East Eye, adding that it can happen only when Palestinians are given a just settlement.
Pakistan’s foreign office has also categorically rejected recognising Israel.
In October, Khan made similar remarks when he told a local TV channel that, “My conscience will never allow me to accept Israel, which is responsible for so many atrocities against the Palestinian people.”
Khan will find millions of Pakistanis who share this view, says Dr Sabir Abu Maryam, the Secretary General of Karachi-based Palestinian Foundation Pakistan (PFP).
“These handful of TV anchors and journalists toeing the Israeli line do not represent the feelings of more than 200 people,” he tells TRT World.
PFP, which drives support from various political and religious groups, was established in 2008 with a mission to educate young people about the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
“Pakistan’s ruling elite know very well they will face a severe backlash if they take the course of UAE and others,” says Maryam.
But seeing his fellow countrymen openly discuss the possibility and benefits of an Israeli friendship is upsetting for Maryam — especially as main political groups have remained mostly silent on the matter.
“That’s unfortunate. Our political and religious parties are bogged down in a war for their own interests,” he said, referring to an alliance of opposition parties that is taking out rallies against Khan’s government these days.
“If you compromise your position on Palestine today, you will have no moral ground to raise a voice for Kashmiris tomorrow.”
For some Pakistanis who have grown up listening to Friday sermons in which clerics regularly blast Israel, the notion of normalising relations comes as no less than a shock.
Generations have come of age hearing stories of how Israel tries to undermine their country.
“My religion will never allow me to accept Israel,” says Muneeb Muzaffar, a marketer.
Not the first time
This is not the first time a link between the two countries has come under the spotlight. Over the years, Pakistani and Israeli officials have exchanged greetings on the sidelines of international conferences and met clandestinely to discuss diplomatic prospects.
Pakistan’s first foreign minister, Zafarullah Khan, met Israeli officials in the early 1950s on several occasions.
Islamabad’s policy on Israel has closely tracked with that of its Arab allies. At one time it even played the role of middleman that indirectly worked in favour of Israel.
Egypt was banished from the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) after it recognised Israel in 1979. It was Pakistan that helped Cairo’s re-entry back to the group of 57 Muslim nations.
In 2005, Pakistan’s then foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, met his Israeli counterpart in Istanbul. In an interview last year, Kasuri told TRT World that the meeting came amid the backdrop of hi-tech weapons and aerial platforms that Israel was selling to India.
On the right side of history
If Imran Khan is right about being pressured for recognising Israel, then it couldn’t have happened at a worse time.
Pakistan’s economy is in a crisis — exports are almost stagnant at $22 billion while its imports are double that amount, leaving a big hole in foreign currency reserves.
This has forced Pakistan to seek loans from allies such as China and Saudi Arabia, and made it one of the most dangerously indebted countries in the world.
At the same time, Pakistan’s ties with Saudi Arabia have deteriorated since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, began calling the shots a few years back.
The seriousness of the situation became evident earlier this year when the Saudis asked Islamabad to return a $1 billion loan ahead of schedule.
“If from an economic point of view our interests are aligned with Saudi Arabia then we should go along with them,” says Zaidi.
Saudi Arabia, which in the 1960s and 70s, led an economic boycott of Israel, hasn’t decided to change its foreign policy — yet. But the kingdom welcomed the UAE’s decision, a fellow Gulf Cooperation State (GCC).
Meanwhile, Riyadh has refused to back Islamabad on the issue of Kashmir, the Himalyan region claimed by both India and Pakistan.
Pakistani officials have been trying for a year to convince the Jeddah-based OIC to take a firm stand on Kashmir. In August 2019, India revoked the nominal autonomy of Muslim-majority Kashmir.
For some Pakistanis, it’s not what happens in the Middle East but the steps neighbouring India is taking that should dictate their government’s Israeli policy.
“India is getting Rafale jets from France, the S-400 (surface-to-air) missiles from Russia and at the same time it’s importing the latest technology from Israel,” says Ali Asghar, a 26-year-old international relations graduate.
In this backdrop, “the lesser the adversaries we have, the better.”
But there are also young Pakistanis who don’t look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of economic or military priorities. For them, it’s a matter of doing the right thing.
One of them is Bismah Mughal, a 23 year old journalist, who says she’s happy to see Palestinian bloggers on Instagram appreciating Pakistan for taking a stand for them.
“I may not be proud of a lot of things that Pakistan does in terms of foreign policy but the stand it has taken on Israel is something I support completely.”