Another Israeli storm in Pakistan’s tea cup

From Left: Ahmed Quraishi, Aneela Ali and Sami Khan. Photo: Twitter _AhmedQuraishi
From Left: Ahmed Quraishi, Aneela Ali and Sami Khan. Photo: Twitter _AhmedQuraishi

A minor political existential storm has been kicked up in Pakistan over the visit of a PTV anchor to Israel recently. Pakistan Television corporation (PTV), is the state owned broadcaster of Pakistan and hence is considered the government’s mouthpiece. This move could mask the Pakistan’s calculated move to reach out to Jerusalem without inviting public ire, especially those of hardliners.

The PTV anchor, Ahmed Quraishi, was part of a delegation of Pakistani-Americans to Israel on a goodwill visit. Another Pakistani citizen in the delegation was a Jewish citizen, Fishel Benkhald. Since PTV was a government-run broadcaster, Quraishi’s presence in Israel has raked up a small storm of sorts with the government and opposition leaders denying and condemning the action. Quraishi has since been dismissed. But no one in the present government, and in the previous government, is willing to clarify how an anchor in a government-run broadcaster, even if on contract, could go to Israel without the state’s permission.

This question assumes significance in the presence of Fishel Benkhald who was the first Pakistani to get official permission to visit holy Jewish sites from the Imran Khan government. Now ousted, the former Prime Minister has been heard accusing  the Shehbaz Sharif government of conspiring to overthrow him with the help of the US and its allies, including Israel.

Imran Khan seems to have conveniently forgotten that not only did his government give the first permission to any Pakistani citizen to visit Israel but also dispatched a confidante with two messages, one to the Prime Minister of Israel and another from General Qamar Bajwa to the Mossad chief, Yossi Cohen, in Tel Aviv on November 2020. The confidante was Zulfi Bukhari, a close aide of Imran Khan. According to Pakistani broadcaster, Geo TV, Bukhari stayed in Tel Aviv for a few days in working out the modalities of laying the ground for breaking the ice between the two countries.

It is equally surprising that Shireen Mazari, a Federal Minister in the Imran Khan government, has been berating the present government for playing the Israeli card. She knows quite well that Pakistan has been reaching out to Israel since the Zia-ul Haq days. In fact, when she was the head of the government-funded Institute of Strategic Studies, she was aware of her boss, the then Foreign Minister, Khurshid Kasuri meeting his Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom in Turkey in 2005. The same year, then then President, and Army chief, Pervez Musharraf, met Israeli President, and veteran solider, Ariel Sharon in New York.

Although the meeting did not result in a breakthrough, the relationship took a deeper direction. Israel was keen on Musharraf’s continuance and well-being. According to Wikileaks, in 2007, the Mossad chief, Meir Dagan met US Under-Secretary Nicholas Burns seeking support for Musharraf.

In fact, it is an open secret in the political and military circles about Pakistan’s clandestine moves to open relations with Israel. Pakistan has not been exactly opposed to Israel as a military dictator, Zia ul Haq said “Pakistan is like Israel, an ideological state.” That was in 1981. In 1997, the then Army chief, Mirza Aslam Beg clarified that “Pakistan has `no direct indifferences` and `no conflict` with Israel.  Pakistan’s only condition for official talks has been statehood to Palestine.

But that condition had not stopped frequent military interactions between the two countries. According to Wikileaks, Pakistan has been sharing intelligence with Mossad about the Gulf states and even about the security threat to Israel in India. The leaked cable quoted the then ISI chief, Ahmad Shuja in 2009. The ISI has had longer relationship with Mossad beginning with the Afghan jihad. Offices were set up, in collaboration with Mossad,  to run anti-Soviet operations. Wikileaks also reported ISI informing Mossad in 2008 about possible Lashkar e Toiba attacks against Israelis.

On the military front, there have been secretive but deeper involvement between the two countries. In 2013, for instance, Britain’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills reported that “In 2011, Israel allegedly exported military equipment to Pakistan via Britain; this equipment apparently included electronic warfare systems and aircraft parts.” In 2015, an Israeli scientist attended the scientific conference sponsored by Pakistan Academy of Sciences held in Lahore, Pakistan.

On the civilian front, besides political emissaries, academics too have helped in the outreach. In 2015, Israeli lecturer Ramzi Suleiman of the University of Haifa’s psychology department, visited Pakistan for a conference sponsored by the University of Punjab. Among Israeli academics, there is considerable interest in working with Pakistani academics, especially in the field of agri-tech. Two Pakistani academics had written in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, strongly seeking Israeli help in finding a viable solution to water issues in Pakistan.

Equally intriguing has been a delegation of Pakistani religious leaders led by former Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam leader Maulana Ajmal Qadri visiting Tel Aviv on a study order. The delegation was sent by the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Maulana Qadri made these disclosures in December 2020. In the same month, another prominent religious leader and member of the JUI-F Muhammad Khan Sherani declared his support for normalizing ties with Israel. He said, I support recognition of Israel…Educated Muslims need to understand that the Quran and history prove to us that the Land of Israel belongs only to the Jews. King David built the house of God in Jerusalem for the Israelis and not for the Palestinians.”

For Pakistan, the Israeli bone has been a difficult one to digest. Several Muslim majority countries, including Pakistan, had kept away from Israel on the issue of Palestine. In 2020, the equation changed with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain breaking ranks, and signing a US-brokered deal, the Abraham Accords, with Israel. Morocco and Sudan joined the signatories to Abraham Accords. These changes leave Pakistan isolated in the Islamic world, considering the fact it has been trying, with little success, for over four decades, to find a way to engage with Jerusalem, without upsetting its image of a austere Sunni country and an ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause. In fact on every forum it can, whether there is a connection or not, Pakistan condemns Israel on Palestine, often before it condemns India on Kashmir.

The latest incident is merely a ruse to test the waters, once more. Whether this smoke leads to a real fire, who ever knows.

About the Author
Sergio Restelli is an Italian political advisor, author and geopolitical expert. He served in the Craxi government in the 1990's as the special assistant to the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Martelli and worked closely with anti-mafia magistrates Falcone and Borsellino. Over the past decades he has been involved in peace building and diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. He has written for Geopolitica and several Italian online and print media. In 2020 his first fiction "Napoli sta bene" was published.
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