Imran Khan Will Continue Pakistan's 'One Step Forward, Two Steps Back' Approach to Israel

A tweet by Fishel Benkhald‏, a Pakistani Jew, announcing that the country’s ministry of foreign affairs had allowed him to visit Israel on his Pakistani passport, resulted in a fresh round of speculation about Israel-Pakistan ties. But as with earlier rounds of similar rumours, the Pakistani Foreign Office denied that Pakistan was on the verge of changing its policy towards the Jewish state.

Pakistani passports explicitly say that they are not valid for travel to Israel – an avowal of non-recognition and unwillingness to engage that has remained consistent for over 70 years.


Periodic rumours of secret engagement notwithstanding, it is unlikely that the world’s first Sunni Islamic republic will abandon its traditional hostility towards the Jewish State any time soon.

Only a change in the collective position of the Arab-Islamic world, possibly with the emergence of a sovereign Palestinian state, might make it possible for Pakistani leaders to normalise relations with Israel.

At the same time, without a demonstrable change in Islamabad’s position on Jihadi terrorism, Israel also might not want to risk its deepening partnership with India. If various terrorist groups promising to ‘punish Israel’ or ‘kill the Jews’ –like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) – operate freely in Pakistan, it would be difficult for Israel to trust promises of friendly engagement.

The desire for a covert relationship with Israel has been periodically voiced by some Pakistanis, notably those concerned about Pakistan’s global position in relation to India. Ironically, it stems from anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish influence over global affairs rather than a genuine recognition of the right of Jews to a national homeland in historic Palestine.

Musharraf’s ‘justified’ outreach

As a military dictator in 2003, General Pervez Musharraf spoke about the need for an open debate in Pakistan about the merits of recognising Israel. Amid worries about India’s “military, economic and intelligence ties” with Tel Aviv, Musharraf wondered aloud, “What is our dispute with Israel?”

Two years later, Musharraf’s foreign minister met his Israeli counterpart in Istanbul. With characteristic bravado, Musharraf claimed that his initiative “enjoyed widespread support.” According to him, “When we are talking to the Israelis and the Israeli foreign minister, or I address the Jewish congress, I am very clear that this is the strategic direction that Pakistan needs to take.”

Some secret contacts between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Israel’s intelligence services followed but the initiative withered soon, and so did Musharraf’s control over power.

To his military colleagues, Musharraf had justified his outreach to Israel as an attempt to prevent Israeli-Indian collusion against Pakistan.

As president and chief of army staff, Musharraf felt he could take risks in external affairs. Even Pakistan’s raucous media and anger-prone religious parties could not accuse an army chief of acting against the country’s ideology or national interest.

Musharraf’s civilian successors could not take such risks. They left the Israel account to the ISI and the military, fearful that any attempt on their part to build upon Musharraf’s initiative would be exploited by the country’s establishment with help from the fanatical crowd.

Imran Khan and the supposed thaw

The selection of Imran Khan as prime minister has reportedly ended the civil-military divide, and the military’s concerns are once again centre-stage. Khan also has the reassurance that the military and intelligence services will take care of any domestic constituency he annoys while trying to end Pakistan’s international isolation.

Soon after Khan took office in 2018, the rumours of a Pakistan-Israel thaw resurfaced. Jack Rosen, an American Jewish personality who had previously hosted Musharraf, broke years of silence on Pakistani affairs by writing an article praising Imran Khan and arguing why Pakistan deserved US support.

Rosen’s critics immediately listed the numerous anti-Semitic and pro-Jihad statements by Khan and other officials of his party Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) and wondered aloud why Rosen was lobbying for the new Pakistani prime minister.

In the subsequent back and forth, Khan’s previous marriage to Jemima Goldsmith was cited as evidence of his tolerance of Jews. Ironically, Jemima has always insisted that she is a Catholic even though her father Sir James Goldsmith was Jewish by birth. Jemima has herself faced allegations of anti-Semitism, which she strongly denies.

In October last year, the editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz’s English edition, Ami Scharf, fuelled gossip when he tweeted about a private jet possibly carrying Israeli officials to Islamabad from Tel Aviv. That claim was based on following the plane on one of the several flight path tracking sites and was strongly denied by the Pakistan government as well as Pakistan’s aviation regulators.

Soon after, retired military officers close to Musharraf revived the arguments on Pakistani television channels in favour of recognising Israel as a means of depriving India of exclusive Israeli friendship. A PTI legislator advanced the case in a speech in parliament. But the government officially denied the likelihood of normalisation of ties with Israel vehemently.

Haaretz described “the outraged reaction to the very idea that an Israeli jet could enter Pakistani airspace” as “a prominent indicator” of Pakistan’s hostility towards the Jewish state. It noted that “the government of Pakistan not only categorically dismissed the very idea that an Israeli jet could land in Islamabad (“No Israeli plane can land in Pakistan”), it has claimed that the report itself is a part of the old-new “Zionist-Hindu conspiracy” against Pakistan.

Roots of Pakistan’s antipathy

The belief about Pakistan being the target of conspiracies by enemies of Islam has over the years become an integral part of Pakistan’s national DNA. Tactical suggestions of normalising relations with Israel to drive a wedge between Tel Aviv and Delhi cannot overcome the view that Pakistan is a citadel of Islam and that several non-Muslim powers (Israel and India foremost among them) seek its destruction.

Antipathy towards Israel goes all the way to Pakistan’s founding. In March 1947, Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah told one of the first American diplomats to meet him that “most Indian Muslims felt Americans were against them.” Jinnah cited two reasons for this view: first, he said, “because most Americans seemed opposed to Pakistan,” and second, because the “US government and people backed Jews against Arabs in Palestine.”

Margaret Bourke-White, who covered Pakistan’s birth as a correspondent for Life magazine, observed that soon after independence, “Pakistan was occupied with her own grave internal problems, but she still found time to talk fervently, though vaguely, of sending a liberation army to Palestine to help the Arabs free the Holy Land from the Jews.” She reported calls by religious leaders “advocating that trained ex-servicemen be dispatched” in the “holy cause” of Palestine.

Bourke-White also noticed in early 1948 that Dawn, then the official government newspaper, condemned the “Jewish state” and “urged a united front of Muslim countries in the military as well as the spiritual sense,” with one editorial asserting, “That way lies the salvation of Islam.’’

That was 1947-48, when Pakistan was new and the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ taught at all levels of schooling had not even covered. Now, with Pakistan’s status as an ideological state fully consolidated, pursuit of pragmatic foreign policy initiatives such as normalisation of relations with Israel (and India) has become less likely.

For the foreseeable future, the powers that be in Pakistan will continue their ‘one step forward, one step back’ approach to Israel. Being the pragmatists that they are, Israelis are also unlikely to risk their relationship with India – a lucrative arms market, tourist destination, and reliable counter-terrorism partner –in pursuit of half-hearted recognition by Pakistan.

This article was originally posted by The Print. It was posted here with the author's permission.