In early June, a group of 15 Pakistanis – mainly from America – visited Israel on a trip organized by the American Muslim and Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council and by Sharaka, an Israeli non-governmental organization, founded in the wake of the Abraham Accords to foster people-to-people connections between Israel and the Arab world.
The visit did not draw much attention in Israel or the Arab world, but in Pakistan the trip caused significant outrage.
One of the participants, journalist Ahmed Quraishi – whose talk show aired on the government-affiliated Pakistan Television Cooperation – was fired. Pakistani Information and Broadcasting Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb let Quraishi go after days of incitement against him by ousted Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan and various threats on social media.
“Pakistan’s policy on Palestine is clear,” Aurangzeb said.
Israel and Jews are highly unpopular in Pakistan.
“A common but unsubstantiated belief amongst many Pakistanis is that the Jews control the world’s finance and media industries,” Hamza Azhar Salam, a Pakistani journalist based in London and co-founder of The Pakistan Daily and Migrant News, observed in the Israeli news site Haaretz on May 25. “Just last year, during an interview with CNN, Pakistan’s former Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi alleged that Israel had ‘deep pockets’ and that ‘they control the media…’ A consequence of this constant normalization of prejudice is that many Muslims, not least in Pakistan, consider that Jews deserve our hatred and disdain. Perhaps it is easier to hate, because hatred amplifies our own opinion of ourselves, while positive engagement forces us to appreciate the good in someone else.”
Ironically though, this controversial trip of a handful of Pakistanis could be a contributing factor to normalization with Israel.
“The good news,” Quraishi said of the Israel trip, is “we today have the first, robust and rich nationwide debate in Pakistan on establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. This is huge.”
Fellow Pakistani journalist, Kunwar Khuldune Shahid, agreed.
“The visit to Israel of a group of Pakistani-Americans and Pakistanis last month has mainstreamed the debate surrounding the formalization of ties between the two countries,” Shahid wrote last week in Haaretz. “From newspaper columns, to blogs, to YouTube videos, to Twitter threads in the local Urdu language – all are dedicated to the discussion. While the most visible narrative still betrays Islamist hyperbole and anti-Semitic hysteria, even the hyper-nationalist internet fora in Pakistan have found space for arguments in favor of recognizing Israel.”
Not only that, but according to Shahid, “many mainstream journalists have come to Quraishi’s defense,” something that would have been inconceivable only a decade ago. At that time, arguing for ties between the two countries, “was an eccentric opinion that barely anyone would take seriously. Today, it is one of the top-level foreign policy deliberations in Pakistan’s corridors of power,” Shahid wrote in Haaretz.
The question, however, is whether the visit is enough to change the status quo. Shahid believes that it will not be the journalists’ trip alone, but geopolitical realities that will eventually force Pakistan down the road of normalization.
“It is the new geopolitical realities that have transformed what was until recently unthinkable to now being increasingly inevitable,” Khuldune wrote.
He is not alone in thinking so. Salam, the Pakistani journalist based in London, wrote in Haaretz that Pakistan’s foreign policy is shifting.
“As far as Pakistan is concerned, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has declared a shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy from geopolitics to geoeconomics,” Salam wrote.
“That suggests that Pakistan’s geopolitical differences with Israel could be sacrificed in favor of the economic benefits which may be achieved from formal ties with Israel in industries such as agriculture, tech, cybersecurity and the freelancing market… That the debate within Pakistan about potential ties with Israel is now being debated in substantial rather than purely demagogic terms is a sign of how far this conversation has evolved.”
“It is now far from what was once fantastical in Pakistan’s public discourse to suggest that a Jewish state and a Muslim state have strong reasons to establish diplomatic relations with each other. Relations with Israel can now be seen as a good fit for Pakistan’s geoeconomic vision: we should see ourselves as a country seeking to build strong trade and economic ties with other countries, for the welfare of our own citizens, no matter how politically complex or misaligned those partners may be.”