Ms Afifa Iqbal has a keen interest in identity politics, colonialism and post-colonial development. She is currently working as a Research Assistant at ITU while pursuing her postgraduate studies in Development, Technology and Policy. She is a Gold Medalist in Political Science from the University of Punjab.
Isaac Herzog, President of Israel, acknowledged receiving a group of Pakistani expats during his special address at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. This acknowledgement sent ripple waves across Pakistan re-igniting the debate about Pakistan-Israel relations. There is no mistaking the fact that the public as well as the civil society has been overwhelming against establishing ties with Israel for one reason or another.
However, throughout the course of Pakistan’s history, the clandestine meetings of Pakistani state officials with Israeli officials have remained a constant. The recent visit is unique in the sense that the group consisted of citizens instead of state officials and the meeting took place within the territory of Israel. This marks a break from the past when the clandestine meetings would place anywhere but Israel.
Moreover, the meeting also signals an attempt to mellow the anti-Israel sentiments in the streets of Pakistan by shifting the focus from state officials to sympathetic elements within the civil society and the public. Above all, the visit signals that the geopolitics in the Middle East is getting reconfigured in the light of the Abraham Accords and Pakistan must adapt to the changing times.
The Visit and the Subsequent Reaction
On May 9, Sharaka tweeted about receiving the first Pakistani-American delegation which also included a Pakistani Jew who was granted special permission to visit Israel, “Sharaka is making history again! We are honored to be hosting a delegation of #American #Muslim leaders of #Pakistani origin led by our new board member @anilaali. They are in Israel and will continue to the UAE to open their minds and learn about #Israel and the #AbrahamAccords.”
For the sake of this visit, Sharaka, an NGO focused on “connecting the people of the Gulf and Israel for a brighter future together”, partnered with the American Muslim and Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council (AMWEC). Anila Ali (board member, Sharaka, and founding member, AMWEC) spearheaded this visit. Later on, in an interview with Geo TV, Anila Ali, in response to the question about the future of Pakistani-Israel ties stated, “I can’t speak for the Pakistan government and I can’t speak for the Israeli government either, but I can speak for the Pakistani people living in America and in Pakistan,”
“I have been overwhelmingly inundated with messages of support from young people, mostly from those who want jobs, they want a better life, and they say it is not our conflict. We should not be hating them, we should be working with them, so our country can benefit. Turkey, Egypt, UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco are all Muslim countries, so why not Pakistan? If Pakistan joins the Abraham Accords, I think it would be good for Pakistan as well. They can benefit from Agricultural technology and water technology [from Israel]. Also, I think it will be in a better position to help the Palestinians. So, it could be a win-win situation for Pakistan.”
Ms. Ali also revealed that the government of Imran Khan knew about this visit and assured that the two Pakistani citizens (Fishel BenKhald, a Pakistani Jew, and Ahmed Qureshi, a freelance journalist) accompanying the group would not be victimized later on. This visit allowed the Pakistani Jew, Fishel BenKhald, to pray for the first time at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
The visit was hailed as an “amazing experience” and dividend of the Abraham Accords by Israel’s President, Isaac Herzog, at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos on May 25, 2022. He also stated that the visit signaled that Muslims and Jews can co-exist peacefully in the Middle East. Ex-Prime Minister, Imran Khan, contrary to Ms. Ali’s claim, asserted that this was an attempt by the current government to establish ties with Israel.
The Foreign Office denied any involvement in orchestrating this visit and clarified that the visit was arranged by a non-governmental organization rather than the government. It is important to note that such allegations have also been levied against Khan’s government in the immediate aftermath of the Abraham Accords. Many domestic publications reported in June 2021 about the alleged visit of the Prime Minister’s advisors to Israel.
However, the then-National Security Advisor, Moeed Yusuf, as well as Prime Minister’s confidante Zulfikar Bukhari, vehemently denied these reports. Another important caveat to remember is that during his premiership, Khan admitted on national television that he was being pressured to recognize Israel. All-in-all, given the highly-charged nature of the topic, the political response is highly unlikely to be clear-cut and honest.
The government is almost always going to deny any attempt at normalizing ties with Israel and the opposition is going to exploit such reports for political point-scoring, but if history is of any relevance, then it can be stated with some confidence that such meetings have indeed taken place and the rationale for these meetings has always been the advancement of Pakistan’s national interests. Ms. Anila Ali also cited the advancement of national interest as the reason for this visit.
If Ms. Ali’s rationale for normalizing ties with Israel is to be taken as an archetype, then, it becomes easy to figure out the broad contours of this argument. The argument rests on one basic assumption that Pakistan should look out for its own interests and normalize ties with Israel accordingly. For instance, Ms. Ali states that Pakistan can benefit from Israel’s agricultural and water technology.
This begs several important questions: Is Israel’s technology unique in the sense that no other substitutes exist? Has no country made strides in agricultural or water technology? Are the trade routes viable? Does the agriculture sector in Pakistan have the capacity to absorb Israeli technology? Will the local farmers use Israeli technology? What does this entail for Pakistan-Iran relations? Above all, does Pakistan really need Israeli technology?
Saying that Pakistan can stand to benefit from Israeli technology, without taking into account the above questions, is a hollow statement at best; a Trojan horse concocted to advance the ties without serving Pakistan’s interests in any way. That normalizing ties with Israel will be equivalent to choosing hate over love thereby empowering Palestinians is another important strand of this argument. Historical evidence suggests that this has never been the case.
No oppressor has ever stopped its oppressive practices merely because either the oppressed have started to chant anthems of love or the allies of the oppressed have established ties with the oppressor. This is not how settler colonialism operates. The exploitation of the indigenous people is the basic instrument of settler colonialism. Painting the indigenous people as hostile savages contrary to the ‘peaceful settler’ is another trick out of the settler colonists’ playbook.
So, one must ask these ambassadors of peace these questions: Can peace prevail when people are being forced out of their homes? Can peace prevail when children are being killed with impunity? Shireen Abu-Aqleh, the Palestinian-American Al-Jazeera journalist gunned down by Israeli forces, is very much alive in the public memory and so are the recent attacks on the Palestinians praying in Masjid-e-Aqsa by the Israeli forces.
Moreover, the atrocities committed by Israeli forces in Libya and Syria can easily be termed war crimes. Put differently, a settler-colonial state is not going to empower the very people it is oppressing. This is intellectually dishonest on part of civil society members like Ms. Ali to claim that the Palestinians stand to benefit from such visits or normalization of relations between Pakistan and Israel.
The aforementioned events took place post-Abraham Accords. If there was even a sliver of truth to Ms. Ali’s argument, those events would not have occurred in the post-Abraham Accords world.
Moshe Yegar and the Post-Abraham Accords World
The geopolitics in the Gulf region is definitely getting reconfigured in the post-Abraham Accords world. Among other things, Abraham Accords have opened doors for cultural diplomacy and informal visits to and from Israel. There is no doubt that this will go a long way in creating a receptive environment for Israel in the Gulf countries in particular and other Muslim majority countries in general.
One example of this is the visit in question. These visits can be regarded as preparing the grounds for formal visits by acclimatizing the public of such states with the idea of normal ties with Israel. Moshe Yegar, an Israeli diplomat, in a 2007 research paper wrote on the prospect of the establishment of ties between Pakistan and Israel; “A modest change could come about if Pakistan believed it would improve its standing in the United States, and perhaps in response to pressure from Jewish organizations and from Western statesmen who could pose a counterweight to the radical Muslims,”
“Progress in relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors could also influence Pakistan. It is not likely that Pakistan would move on its own before that happens.” It is true that Pakistan can marginally improve its standing in the United States by being cordial with Israel. The progress in Arab-Israel relations after the Abraham Accords also seemingly provides an impetus to extend a cordial hand to Israel.
Moreover, the efforts by “civil rights advocates and political activists” like Ms. Ali are also geared towards making the Pakistani public realize that they should let bygones be bygones, and join Abraham Accords following the suit of the Gulf countries. However, it must be remembered that none of these Gulf states has a Kashmiri cause to fight for. The moral and humanist argument that Pakistan makes on international forums will lose its standing the moment Pakistan recognizes the apartheid regime of Israel.
In other words, Pakistan stands to lose more if it establishes ties with Israel. However, it must also be realized that the geopolitics of the post-Abraham Accords world are going to be different, and Pakistan must adapt to changing times. One strategy could be deepening ties with Iran in light of the Iran-China deal, counter-terrorism efforts requiring Iran’s co-operation, and the US exit from Afghanistan, and this strategy is bound to pay more dividends than alienating Iran by establishing ties with Israel.
Many analysts, civil society leaders, and politicians have been arguing recently that Pakistan should establish ties with Israel considering its own interests. When Arabs have made peace with Israel, then, we should too. This argument should be put to rest because Pakistan does not stand to benefit from establishing ties with Israel. Anyone who claims otherwise should outline the benefits in detail while taking into account the Kashmir question and the Palestinians instead of coming up with hollow arguments and shoddy statements.
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