Pakistanis Thinking the Unthinkable

After more than half a century of viewing Jews as avowed enemies and negating their right to a Jewish state, Pakistanis are now learning to say “shalom” and debating recognition of Israel. Last weekend, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf became the country’s first head of state to speak to an official gathering of Jews, when he addressed the American Jewish Congress in New York on the sidelines of the start of the United Nations session.

Musharraf’s message was straightforward: Pakistan would take steps toward normalization of ties with Israel, if the Middle East peace process moves forward.

“What better signal for peace could there be than the opening of embassies in Israel by Islamic countries like Pakistan,” he said, adding that a just resolution of the Palestinian problem would lead to Israel’s recognition by Muslim states and “will extinguish the anger and frustration that motivates resort to violence and extremism.”

Musharraf’s address came in the wake of a “historic” meeting in Istanbul on Sept. 1 between Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmud Kasuri and his Israeli counterpart, Silvan Shalom, in what is being called the first-ever diplomatic contact between Pakistan and Israel. The historic handshake was featured on the front pages of all the Pakistani national dailies the next day.

Recent moves by the Pakistani government toward recognition of Israel, with which it has no diplomatic relations, may be surprising for their rapidity, but they were the next moves in a continuum. Following Musharraf’s earliest comments on the subject in July 2003, the nation has been witnessing an on-again, off-again debate on the pros and cons of if and when to establish ties with the Jewish state.

The debate has only intensified since the Kasuri-Shalom meeting in Istanbul. What was once unthinkable about is now openly talked of from every perceivable angle on all the national networks and in newspapers.

The vigor of this national debate is understandable in the context of Pakistan’s longstanding support for the Palestinian cause, and its virtually automatic and reflexive denunciation of Israel and its policies at all international levels. On the domestic front, ordinary Pakistanis have been fed by politicians and the clergy a picture of Jews as the most evil of all of Islam’s enemies, while Israel is characterized as a pariah state that tramples on Palestinian rights.

For all the hype, however, the issues of contention between Israel and Pakistan are curiously few. Putting aside Pakistan’s genuine identification with Palestinians, experts in this Islamic nation can tally advantages of good relations with Jews and Israel.

Most analysts take the view that establishing diplomatic ties with Israel would create diplomatic space for Pakistan on two of its most important foreign-policy fronts: 1 — countering the growing India-Israel nexus in the domains of military and economic co-operation; 2 — gaining favor with Jewish lobbies considered influential in U.S. politics, economics, society and the media.

“There is no doubt that the dominant view [in Pakistan] is that it’s better late than never,” said B. Muralidhar Reddy, special correspondent from Pakistan for the Indian daily, The Hindu. The Indian government is watching closely the developing ties between Israel and Pakistan, he said.

For its part, the Pakistani government has to square its current actions with its past rhetoric. The official line speaks of Pakistan’s willingness as a major Muslim country to play an important role in the Middle East conflict by engaging Israel and encouraging both sides to make peace. Beginning with Musharraf, officials are taking pains to say that the ongoing parleys have specifically come about as a result of Israel’s pullout from Gaza, and in no way do they foreshadow any imminent recognition of Israel.

“This is not a question of Pakistan’s national interests,” Foreign Office spokesman Naeem Khan told The Journal. “Pakistan wants to play a helpful role in the establishment of a Palestinian state by sending an encouraging signal to Israel to take more steps like the Gaza pullout.”

Such extreme caution, however, may be unnecessary, at least for domestic Pakistani consumption. With the exception of the hard-line Islamists, other mainstream political parties are reacting to the issue more provincially than ideologically. Their chief objection was that Musharraf had failed to take Parliament’s leaders into his confidence on the issue.

The familiar angry masses protesting on the streets, a top government concern, have failed to materialize. The country’s top Islamist leader, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, a member of the opposition, does not offer too many words on the subject, other than the traditional party line that calls Israel an “illegal state.” He told The Journal that his party would launch a “struggle” in tune with the party line. “We will also bring people on the streets.”

For now, however, many Pakistanis are content watching the lively TV debates, reading expert analyses and wondering what it means for their country.

“They [Israelis] have not done any harm to us, so why should we not have relations with them,” said 26-year-old Madiha Ali, who just completed a science degree and aspires to be a civil servant. Ali said that in the era of globalization, Pakistan cannot afford to stand alone.

“Common people do have reservations [about Israel], but it can be solved through proper propaganda,” she said.

In other words, the diatribes about the evils of Jews can be replaced with a more constructive message.

Ali slipped into another stereotype, even as she tried to speak positively about better relations with Jews. Jews, she said, “are the decision makers of the U.S., and they are eventually the policymakers of Pakistan. We need to engage them.”