As influential Gulf Arab countries recalibrate their foreign policy towards the Jewish state, there’s speculation about Islamabad following suit.
Students in many public colleges and universities across Pakistan attend class after walking over an Israeli flag painted on the floor in the lobby or near the gate by hardline activists.
In many instances when religion has been a source of street demonstrations, the boogeyman of Israel crawls out in the shape of offensive posters and effigies to be punched, lynched and torched by angry people.
At the Friday sermons in mosques, when the attendance of the faithful is at its highest, clerics call for the destruction of the Jewish state. Generations of Pakistanis have come of age hearing stories of how Israel tries to undermine their country.
Against this backdrop of historical animosity, it sounds strange that Islamabad might even consider recognising Israel - something that it has refused to do for over 70 years.
But the two countries have reached out to each other diplomatically over the years - and social media was rife with rumours recently that they might be on it again.
“I think it’s just pragmatic for us to be thinking about it now,” says Salman Bashir, Pakistan's former foreign secretary.
“It’s a new era of politics in the Middle East - Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman have now made it obvious that they are moving closer to Israel. Why can’t we?”
On September 2, the Israeli Haaretz newspaper published an opinion by a Pakistani journalist that said the country’s powerful military is allowing journalists to openly explore the possibility of recognising the Jewish state.
The paper cited influential journalist Kamran Khan’s tweet as an indication of what might be happening. Khan had asked why the topic of relations with Israel shouldn’t be open to debate.
High time Pakistan counter nefarious Indian designs with bold foreign policy moves. Our deepest friends making fresh alignments. No permanent friends no enemies. Why can’t we openly debate pros cons of opening direct and overt channels of communication with the State of Israel— Kamran Khan (@AajKamranKhan) August 25, 2019
Pakistan’s foreign ministry hasn’t denied or contradicted the report. Mohammad Faisal, the foreign office’s spokesman, didn’t respond to TRT World’s repeated requests for comment.
However, the spokesman of the country’s powerful military said he had no knowledge of a change in Islamabad’s stance on Israel.
“As far as my visibility goes, nothing of the sort is happening. But this is a question related to the foreign office,” he told a press conference on Wednesday.
A veiled history
This is not the first time a link between the two countries has come under the spotlight. Over the years Pakistani and Israeli officials have exchanged greetings on the sidelines of international conferences and met clandestinely to discuss prospects of diplomatic ties.
Pakistan’s first foreign minister Zafarullah Khan met Israeli officials in early 1950s on several occasions.
At the same time, Islamabad has continued to back Arab countries in their opposition to Israel, especially after the formation of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) in 1969.
The Pakistani passport is the only one in the world which says that its holder can travel anywhere on it, except Israel.
Islamabad’s policy on Israel has closely tracked with that of its Arab allies even though at times it has played a balancing act like when it helped Egypt’s re-entry into the OIC, which had banished Cairo for establishing relations with Israel in 1979.
But the discourse around the question of recognising Israel has surfaced at a crucial time for Pakistan, which faces an economic crisis and worsening relations with arch-rival India.
“I think this is the worst time to be even discussing this. We have to focus on Kashmir,” says Khurshid Kasuri, Pakistan’s former foreign minister who met his Israeli counterpart in 2005 in a landmark meeting in Istanbul.
“Sure we should analyse it and shape public opinion before announcing anything. But this is not the right time.”
Kasuri says he had met his Israeli counterpart under different circumstances. “Israelis were selling hi-tech weaponry including aerial platforms to India - the kind of stuff the Americans weren’t giving to New Delhi,” he explains.
Pakistan’s attempt was also aimed at placating the Jewish lobby in the US that was working against Islamabad’s interests, he says.
“The first thing Israelis asked me was ‘Why do you keep supporting the Palestinians?’ And I said the same reason you are concerned about a Russian Jew. Because both Pakistan and Israel were made in the name of religion.”
The United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain and even Saudi Arabia have warmed up to Israel in recent years as they divert their wrath toward their mutual nemesis - Iran.
Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa has defended Israel’s airstrikes against alleged Iranian targets in Syria, the UAE has hosted Israeli officials and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman last year on an official visit.
But outside of Egypt and Jordan, no other Arab countries have diplomatic relations with Israel. And that’s an equation that can’t change easily, says Khalid Rehman, who heads an Islamabad-based think tank.
“You have the governments and the leaders in Muslim countries on one side and then you have the public on the other. No matter what the governments do, selling the idea of a friendly Israel to the public remains difficult,” he told TRT World.