Prospects for normalization of relations between Pakistan and Israel – by Paul Rockower

by admin

About the author: Paul Rockower is a Visiting Fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, and a journalist who writes about Jewish communities in far-flung places. His series “Tales of a Wandering Jew” was published in the Jerusalem Post and his articles have appeared in numerous Jewish newspapers. His journalism and traveling endeavors have taken him to nearly 45 countries. Paul previously served as Press Officer for the Consulate General of Israel of the Southwest, directing media and public diplomacy outreach across the five-state region. He was also a research assistant for Harvard University’s “Children of Abraham” project. Paul recently graduated with a Masters of Public Diplomacy from the University of Southern California.

The present post is based on an extract from the chapter “Dancing in the Dark: Pulling the Veil off Israel-Pakistan Relations” which Paul wrote for a book Muslim Attitudes to Jews and Israel edited by Moshe Ma’oz.


Following the beginnings of overt contact between Israel and Pakistan [in 2005], Pakistani civil society began reaching out to its Israeli counterpart in a variety of manners. Citizens of both countries began sounding off on internet chats about the prospects of relations between the two nations, and message boards were filled with notes back and forth between Israelis and Pakistanis about the practicability of relations. In the meantime, anecdotes of the behind-the-scenes clandestine links between Israel and Pakistan began slowly filtering out within Pakistan’s media, as pundits and governmental figures debated and discussed the previously closeted links. In a television interview, Foreign Minister Kasuri noted: “As far as this process of engagement (with Israel) is concerned…there had been back-channel contacts for decades and now a lot started appearing in the newspapers as well,” while mainstream newspapers ran stories on previous examples on secret contact.

In response to the opening of contacts, an unofficial but sanctioned Pakistani delegation visited Israel in November 2005 to discuss bilateral political relations, trade and economic affairs. The delegation consisted of retired generals, bureaucrats, businessmen and religious leaders, and was led by Maulana Ajmal Qadri- the cleric who had previously visited Israel in 1997. Interestingly, Ajmal Qadri is chief of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam party, which is part of the MMA- the Islamist opposition bloc in Pakistan and had led the opposition to the Istanbul meeting. The group made stops in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and visited with top officials in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and Ajmal Qadri led the Friday prayer and delivered a sermon at the al-Aqsa mosque. Calling the visit “fruitful,” Ajmal Qadri reiterated that normalization with Israel would only come with the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

In Pakistan and in America, groups emerged to further dialogue between Israel and Pakistan. In Pakistan, the Pakistan Democratic Party’s Central Committee member Ghulam Jillani formed the Pakistan-Israel Friendship Association (PIFA). With an office in Faisal Town, the organization was founded to promote relations between Pakistan and Israel.
In addition, in Washington, DC, Israeli Dror Topf and Pakistani Waleed Ziad formed the Pakistan-Israel Peace Forum, a grass-roots organization designed to promote dialogue and the establishment of relations between Israel and Pakistan at political, cultural, social and economic levels . The organization’s online petition calling for relations and dialogue between the two countries has received nearly 500 signatures, and on its advisory committee sits a former Finance Minister of Pakistan, a current media advisor to the Prime Minister and an influential Pakistani rock musician of the popular band Junoon. As well, in the United Kingdom, the Pakistan-Israel Friendship Society (PIFS) was formed to promote dialogue between Israel and Pakistan. Currently with over 100 members from the political and intellectual classes, the PIFS has held debates and seminars about the issue of Pakistani-Israeli relations, and is set to launch its operations in Pakistan.

Israeli-Pakistani cooperation took on a new element following the devastating earthquake that rocked Pakistan in October 9, 2005. In the aftermath of the quake that struck Pakistan’s the North-West Frontier Province and Azad Kashmir, both Israel and American Jewish organizations reached out to provide humanitarian aid to Pakistan. Although the aid was accepted via third-party sources and international relief agencies, it was a step in the right direction.
That Pakistan didn’t erupt in riots at the sight of its foreign minister shaking hands with his Israeli counterpart, or at its president meeting with American Jewish groups or even Israel’s prime minister, is indeed a good sign, and the debate that ensued over the merits of recognition was surely positive. At the same time, it would be imprudent to underestimate the domestic public opinion in Pakistan that is hostile to Israel and intractably opposed to recognition. By way of examining public opinion, part of the research that was undertaken involved examining Pakistani student textbooks. The textbooks used by Pakistani students are indicative of Pakistan’s official political and religious outlooks, and Pakistani textbooks that deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict are a reflection of the long-held public sentiment towards Israel. In dealing with Israel, the textbooks have no balance regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict, lack a context for historical events and possess many inaccuracies and falsehoods. For example, on the creation of Israel, one textbook writes:

When the danger of Nazism was over, the Jews demanded the right to flood into Palestine in huge numbers. Jewish terrorist gangs such as Irgun were formed and began a nonstop campaign of killing British troops. Boats crammed with illegal Jewish immigrants streamed towards the country despite the British navy’s efforts to stop them. Terrorism was so rampant that in 1947 Britain said that it was withdrawing from the area and that the United Nations must take over. Under strong Zionist pressure in New York, the United Nations divided Palestine into three parts.

On the Six Day War, the same textbook states:

Israel was beset by many economic problems: many Jews left the county because of the high unemployment rate. Whether to divert attention from this, or out of fear of the Russian threat [from its alliance to Egypt], Israel attacked Egypt in June 1967 without notice.

In focusing on Pakistan’s role in the OIC, multiple textbooks note that the organization was formed following “the Zionists (Jews) setting the al-Aqsa mosque on fire,” which is factually incorrect as the fire was set by an Australian Christian named Michael Dennis Rohan. Another textbook relates to the Yom Kippur War as “Israel’s attack on Egypt and Syria.” Other Pakistani textbooks that touch on Pakistan’s foreign policy stress Pakistan’s opposition to Israel at every juncture. Some note that this opposition took place “even after [Israel’s] acceptance by the PLO in 1993.” Textbooks note Pakistan’s support for the Palestinians, Israel’s violation of Palestinian human rights and how the issue of Palestine has been a source of unrest for the Muslim world.

However, at least one textbook written after President Musharraf brought up the question of recognition of Israel in 2003 takes a more open stance and reflects the growing openness of debate in Pakistan. It notes President Musharraf’s calls to have a debate on the question of recognizing Israel, Israel’s openness towards ties with Pakistan and that Israel does not consider Pakistan an enemy. It cites Foreign Minister Shalom’s statement that Israel would welcome ties with Pakistan. It also states that if the Roadmap between Israel and the Palestinians is implemented, then Pakistan will reassess its position towards recognition.

The Islamiat textbooks that deal with Islamic history have a bit more nuance dealing with the subject of “Jews.” On more than one occasion, the Islamiat textbook mentions tolerance towards Jews and Christians living within the Muslim state. This sentiment is especially prevalent in regard to the Treaty of Medina agreed between the Prophet Muhammad and the Jews of Medina, which is mentioned in multiple Islamiat books and stresses the tolerance and freedom of worship granted toward the Jews by the Prophet Muhammad.

Yet in other instances, the Jews are portrayed in an anti-Semitic fashion. Jews are portrayed as being greedy, cruel and deceitful; the Jews are noted as conspiring against Muslims, or termed “enemies of Islam,” while other chapters characterize Jews as double-crossing. As well, the Jews are accused of plotting to murder the Prophet Muhammad, and one chapter contains a passage that states, “The Jews continued to cherish evil designs against the Muslims up to the reign of the second Khalifa Hazrat Umar when they were asked to leave Syria. After that incident, the whole of Arabia was freed from the Jews.” Another chapter related to the Caliph Usman’s purchase of water well from a Jewish owner, the Jew is depicted as being greedy and cruel.

The issue of recognition of Israel evokes passionate debate in Pakistan, with proponents of recognition painted as enemies of Pakistan and Islam and agents of Israel or India. For years, conspiracy theories of alleged of Jewish and Israeli against Pakistan and the Muslim world have circulated. As well, tales of a “Brahmin-Zionist” nexus that is conspiring against Pakistan have been rife in the Pakistani media for a long time, and only grown as Israel and India’s ties have increased.

The culmination of decades of behind-the-scenes diplomacy between Israel and Pakistan offers an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of the policy of duality. Given a private reality that stands in such stark contrast to public perception, it is hard to determine the interface between the public rhetoric and the private accommodations. Through this dichotomy, Pakistan has been able to further its foreign policy objectives and reach understandings through quietly adopting private positions that have stood in stark contrast to the public opinion. Behind the rhetoric, Pakistan has been able to pursue policies that have furthered its own interests through adopting tacit understanding with Israel.

As the historical record shows, the lack of formal diplomatic relations has not prevented Israel and Pakistan from conducting contact, dialogue and meetings related to shared national interests. This covert yet open line of communications has led to understanding even in the sensitive realm of nuclear programs. Although Pakistan has not been ready to move forward toward recognition and normalization of relations, the moves by Pakistan’s leadership in Istanbul and New York helped show that even within Pakistani civil society, the question of recognition is not as taboo as previously believed.

The big question that faces the prospect of Israeli-Pakistani normalization of relations today is not one of “if,” but rather “when.” Yet in wake of events such as the Second Lebanon War, fall of the Musharraf government and increased instability in Pakistan, as well as the ongoing political turmoil in Israel, the efforts for outreach have hit a lull. More recent events like the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008 and the Israeli offensive ”Cast Lead” in Gaza beginning in December 2008 have pushed the respective populations further apart on the desire for normalization and served to create more mistrust and misgivings. Given the multitude of issues facing Pakistan and Israel domestically, it will likely remain that neither side has enough political capital to push through with normalized relations, at least until more progress is made on the Palestinian issue.

The long history of Israeli-Pakistani relations have shown that the two states are rather comfortable working together behind the scenes, but the next level of relations remain elusive because it is tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The resolution of the Palestinian issue remains the major elephant in the room for Pakistan and Israel to move forward. When Israel and the Palestinians move forward with robust peace negotiations, the Pakistani government gains cover to push forward with its own pursuit of normalization of ties. While the time might not presently be ripe for Pakistan and Israel to move to the next level of ties, the prospect of Israeli-Pakistani relations are not as far off as many in Israel and Pakistan may perceive. Gradual progress in the Palestinian issue will help Israel and Pakistan move forward in the quest for diplomatic relations, and the history of ties, contacts and cooperation will ultimately serve as the foundation for future relations when the time is right.

2 Comments to “Prospects for normalization of relations between Pakistan and Israel – by Paul Rockower”

  1. I agree with the author. The normalization of relations between Israel and Pakistan is not a question of if but a a question of when. Long live peace!

  2. Paul, you hit the nail on its head when you write that Gradual progress in the Palestinian issue will help Israel and Pakistan move forward in the quest for diplomatic relations.

    Resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict is a key to FULL normalization. Gradual progress to resolution will translate into a gradual progress to normalization.

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