Could Israel and Pakistan become friends?

Monday, February 18, 2013 |  Elizabeth Blade

It’s hard to imagine a Muslim state that would be cordial to Israel. Pakistan is no exception. Last year, it promised to retaliate against Israel in the event of a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Then – during Israel’s recent operation in the Gaza Strip – Pakistan condemned the effort to curb Hamas rocket fire, calling on the United Nations’ Security Council to demand an immediate cessation of Israel’s military action.

But the hostile rhetoric doesn’t come as a shock, especially given the fact that Pakistan’s education system breeds hatred towards non-Muslims. In November 2011, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom published a report according to which Pakistani school textbooks were saturated with hatred towards other religions.

The report that pored through more than 100 books from grades one to ten across four provinces, visiting 37 public schools and interviewing 277 students and teachers read: “Dislike of Christians is found in religious textbooks where Islam is described in opposition to Judaism and Christianity as creeds that rejected the pure message of Islam”.

This, however, is nothing new. In 2005, The Times of India reported that “some material taught in Pakistani schools includes describing Jews as tightfisted moneylenders, Christians as vengeful conquerors, and Hindus as devious and cowardly people…”

Pakistan’s mass media has also played a vital role in stirring anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment. In March 2011, the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington-based think tank devoted to the exploration of the region through its media, published a detailed analysis of anti-Semitism in Pakistan.

The report charged: “The new generations of Pakistani youth are being taught by the influential Urdu-language press that all major problems facing the society and state of Pakistan are created by Israel, the US and India”.

Where’s the Hope for Peace?

But there are some who challenge the system and question some of its fundamental principles. Pirzada Hasaan Hashmi, a political activist, blogger and a spokesperson for Interfaith Harmony for Religious Peace, anon-governmental organization that promotes tolerance towards all religions, says anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment is deeply rooted in the Pakistani society.

Hatred and propaganda against Israel is very strong. Radical thinking is mainly advocated by extreme mullahs, who portray Jews [and Israel] as our biggest enemies,” Hashmi told Israel Today.

The reasons for this hatred (and hence the lack of ties) were suggested by Iqbal Jafar, a Pakistani essayist and columnist, who held an array of important positions under various administrations.

“Israel and Pakistan don’t have any ties because the two countries think of themselves as the embodiment of an ideology. Ties are [possible] between countries, not ideologies,” explained Jafar.

The notorious Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Jafar, was also a factor that added fuel to the fire. “Pakistan doesn’t recognize Israel in order to show solidarity with the Palestinians; and also because of [the country’s] domestic political reasons. The recognition of Israel under given circumstances would be a very unpopular decision. [Although] Pakistan’s two military dictators [Ziaul Haq and General Musharraf] toyed with the idea of recognizing Israel, they got cold feet in the end”.

Hashmi agreed: “Religious clerics teach us that Jews have occupied Muslims’ holiest lands and that the rightful owners of those lands – the Palestinians – don’t get their rights. Mullahs (supported, funded and inspired by Saudi Arabia and Iran) are the ones who control Pakistan,” he said stressing that politicians cannot do much to improve the situation primarily because they fear to lose the support of their people.

Attempting the ‘Impossible’

Nevertheless, hatred didn’t prevent the two countries from making several attempts at bolstering relations.

The first contact was initiated by David Ben-Gurion, when he dispatched a telegram to Governor General Muhammad Ali Jinnah asking him to recognize Israel. But Jinnah was hesitant and gave no particular response, fearing the reaction of the Arabs.

Then in 1953, US diplomats arranged a meeting between Pakistan’s first foreign minister Muhammad Zafarullah Khan and Israel’s then ambassador to the US, Abba Eban. Although Khan told Eban that improved relations between the two states were not on the horizon, he did stress that“…the Pakistani government does not bear any hatred toward Israel and understands that it is a factor in the Middle East that must be taken into consideration.” He also gave a green light to mutual visits of experts, students, and professors.

The 1990s saw another wave of attempts from leaders of both countries to boost ties. Israel was looking for a “friendly” state in Asia, whereas Pakistan was motivated by its difficult economic situation, shaky relations with the US (primarily because of its nuclear program), and strong desire to improve its image in the eyes of the world community – things that ties with Israel could provide.

Meetings were organized between Israel’s then President Ezer Weizman and his Pakistani counterpart Muhammad Rafiq Tarrar; Pakistani UN ambassador Jamshi Merkar and Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin, to mention but a few.

Things also looked promising in early 2000s, when Israel’s former foreign minister Silvan Shalom met his Pakistani counterpart Khurshid Kasuri, and soon after, during a visit to the US, General Musharraf agreed to be the guest of honor at an American Jewish Congress dinner.

But as Jafar recalls, apart from numerous meetings, the two countries have also seen instances of cooperation. “Israel and Pakistan have cooperated at least once, but secretly, when Israel Military Industries upgraded Pakistan’s T55 tanks at the request of General Ziaul Haq…” pointed out Jafar, stressing that the two states could find other – equally important – spheres of cooperation.

Mutual Benefit

“Pakistan and Israel can cooperate in dealing with militant extremism, which is a common challenge. A fruitful and peaceful cooperation can be in the field of agriculture. Israel’s unmatched expertise in taming the desert for agricultural purposes can be a boon for Pakistan, which has vast desert areas [many of which] lie uncultivated,” Jafar added.

Hashmi elaborated: “Pakistan can benefit from Israel’s market in terms of food, cotton and gems, whereas Israel could export its military and hi-tech know how to the Pakistani market”. But it doesn’t stop there.

“The states could also cooperate on the political and diplomatic levels,” insisted Hashmi. “Both countries could pose as mediators. Pakistan can mediate between Israel and the Palestinians, whereas Israel can exert influence on India in the Indian-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir”.

Moreover, Hashmi believes that good relations with Israel could help Pakistan to improve its image in the eyes of the international community: “Israel has the strongest lobbying powers in the world. If Israel and Pakistan are on good terms, we can use this lobbying to foster healthy relationships with other countries, because other than Saudi Arabia [and China], no major country supports Pakistan”.

Reality for Fantasy?

But are these plans feasible or will they always remain a fantasy? Jafar shared his view: “To kick off, an enabling environment has to be created. This would take some time and can be initiated only after January 2013 [after the elections in Israel and Pakistan]. The first and easiest step for Israel to take is to normalize its relations with Turkey. The Turks and Pakistanis have a close emotional bond going back to the 1920s when the Muslims of this part of the world supported the Turks in their struggle against occupation by the victors of the First World War. Turkey is also fast emerging as the leading Muslim power in the region. It can play a decisive role in [forming] an understanding between Israel and Pakistan”.

The expert also suggested that Israel should seize the opportunity and establish ties with the Syrian rebels that “desperately need support and recognition”. Jafar explained: “This would enable Israel to reach an understanding with the new Syria, after the exit of the present regime, [and can help] to resolve the dispute over the Golan Heights. This, by itself, would be a great breakthrough that could be linked to the recognition of Israel by Syria, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, if not all Muslim States”.

Sowing the Seeds

Hashmi had a different approach, suggesting that moderates on both sides should create a basis for communication, while the government should take active steps in changing the education system and influencing the biased media.

The good news is that some of it is already happening. In July, Israeli news website Ynet reported that a Jerusalem-based Tazpit News Agency launched a joint venture with Weekly Press Pakistan, a Toronto-based news outlet published in Urdu (Pakistan’s official language).

Apart from that, in recent months, mainstream Pakistani news websites published numerous articles and statements by the country’s commentators, intelligentsia and political leaders calling for the country to follow India’s example and establish ties with all international and regional players, including Israel.

Yet, so far, these words have not been backed by concrete deeds. Israelis are still not allowed to visit Pakistan, and Pakistanis (even if they have a foreign passport) are barred from visiting Israel.

So what makes Hashmi and Jafar feel that now (after years of confrontation and fruitless dialogue) the situation is going to be any different? Jafar concluded: “We should try even if the possibility of a change is remote. The flutter of a butterfly in a Brazilian forest can, it has been suggested, bring about a storm in the Caribbean”.

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