In late March, a container of food products originating from Pakistan was unloaded at the Israeli port of Haifa via the United Arab Emirates. It was hailed by the American Jewish Congress and the Pakistani businessman who dispatched the goods as the “first shipment of Pakistan-origin food products” to Israel.
Like many Muslim-majority countries, Pakistan does not recognize the state of Israel. So the news of indirect trade between the two countries quickly triggered speculation that an effort was underway to pave the way for Pakistan’s recognition of Israel. The Pakistani government furiously denied those claims, describing reports of Israel-Pakistan bilateral trade as “sheer propaganda.”
While Pakistan is unlikely to begin direct trade with Israel or recognize the country any time soon, there are clearly efforts by powerful forces in the country to test the waters on normalization.
Pakistan’s flirtation with recognition of Israel dates back to the early 2000s during the rule of the now-deceased General Pervez Musharraf. The military leader came to see himself as a realist and a statesman willing to make brave choices in the national interest.
Israel’s “unilateral disengagement” from Gaza provided a pretext for Musharraf to begin publicly engaging Tel Aviv. In September 2005, Musharraf’s foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri met Israel’s top diplomat Silvan Shalom in Istanbul.
Weeks later in New York, Musharraf shook hands with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the United Nations General Assembly annual gathering. Musharraf also addressed the aforementioned American Jewish Congress, becoming the first Pakistani leader to speak before a Jewish gathering.
The initial momentum for normalization between Israel and Pakistan fizzled once Musharraf retired from the army in 2007. But the head of the American Jewish Committee, Jack Rosen, would come to bat for Musharraf, defending him after he declared emergency rule in 2007.
Years later, a video of Musharraf addressing an American audience in 2012 convened by Rosen was made public. The former military ruler told the gathering, “I need to come (to power) again and I need to be supported. Not overtly, but in a covert manner. So that we win again.”
In the years that followed, Israel and Pakistan maintained direct and indirect communication. In 2009, Ahmad Shuja Pasha, head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), directly reached out to Israel to warn it about “possible threats against Israeli targets in India,” according to a U.S. diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks.
(The gesture came a year after four Israeli nationals were killed in the Mumbai terror attacks perpetrated by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e Taiba.)
Slow-Motion Israel-Pakistan Normalization?
A decade later, the push for normalization regained momentum as Gulf Arab states accelerated covert cooperation with Israel that would later culminate in the Abraham Accords. Between 2018 and 2020, there were disputed claims of an Israeli chartered jet landing in Islamabad and visits by Pakistani officials to Israel.
In the past year, there have been more tangible signs of soft engagement between Islamabad and Tel Aviv. In May 2022, Sharaka, an Israeli organization, hosted a delegation of Pakistanis and Pakistani Americans to Israel.
Leading Sharaka is led by Amit Deri, a former Israeli Defense Forces officer who earlier founded a group aimed at countering the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Sharaka says it is a non-governmental organization that promotes understanding between the peoples of Israel and Muslim-majority countries. But its agenda closely aligns with that of the Israeli government and its new Gulf Arab partners.
Among the participants in last year’s delegation to Israel was a talk show host with Pakistan’s state television broadcaster. For this and other reasons, the television personality’s trip would have at least required clearance from the country’s intelligence services.
Later, in September 2022, then-army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa visited the United States and is reported to have discussed “the prospect of opening up relations with Israel.”
And earlier this month, a journalist with Geo News, Pakistan’s top news channel, reported from Israel, covering a briefing on the threat Israeli civilians in the city of Sderot face from Hamas rockets. The reporter was part of a delegation of Pakistani journalists hosted by Sharaka.
The Road Ahead for Israel and Pakistan
The latest push for Israel-Pakistan normalization, some claim, was at least initially driven by pressure from the Trump administration and Gulf Arab states. Ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan says he insisted instead that recognition of Israel be predicated on the establishment of a Palestinian state.
But are there now once again domestic drivers in Pakistan of the pursuit of normalization with Israel.
The Pakistan Army, which dominates national security policymaking, may feel left out as Israel and archrival India have joined with its longtime allies the U.S. and the UAE as part of the quadrilateral I2U2 partnership. Pakistan could want to impede the hardening of this bloc.
India and Israel are already close military partners. Israel’s SPICE 2000 air-to-surface missiles were used by the Indian Air Force in a strike on Pakistan in 2019.
There are also more political factors at play. When General Bajwa floated the idea of building ties with Israel last year, he did so as part of a bid to pitch himself as indispensable to the United States, seeking support for another extension of his tenure.
Pakistan’s generals could also see the normalization process as providing dividends in countering growing domestic opposition. Israel is a major exporter of surveillance technology to authoritarian states. And the transfer of spyware like NSO Group’s Pegasus software has been used by Tel Aviv as a diplomatic tool in the leadup to normalization with Muslim states.
The crackdown on the popular opposition leader Khan has also alienated not just a large swath of the Pakistani populace, but also diasporic Pakistanis. Leading Pakistani American advocates of U.S.-Pakistan partnership are now devoting their efforts to getting lawmakers in Washington to condemn the heavy-handed tactics against Khan.
Pakistan’s rulers may seek to emulate the model of Egypt — an authoritarian government that relies on pro-Israel advocates, including evangelical Christians, to help make its case in Washington, enabling it to receive over $1 billion in U.S. aid annually even as it suppresses its population at home.
In the months ahead, advocates of Israel-Pakistan normalization will continue to discuss the need for interfaith dialogue and the acquisition of Israel’s innovative water technology. These are soft elements of the Abraham Accords that mask what is ultimately a security alignment. And Pakistan, which has a small Jewish population, does not appear sincere about interfaith or innovation anyway.
And while Israel’s desalination feats are impressive, Pakistan’s rulers are largely unserious about addressing water challenges. The World Bank alone has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to Pakistan to promote the efficient use of water in agriculture. Still, the country’s army and feudal elites engage in rampant water theft.
As nuclear powers, Israel and Pakistan need a communication channel to deconflict. The U.S. has served as an intermediary in some ways, asking Pakistan to limit the reach of its nuclear-capable missiles so they can’t hit Israel — through Israel’s Jericho missiles can reach Pakistan.
But it’s hard to see an upside to Israel-Pakistan normalization at the moment. It would provide a diplomatic shot in the arm for the far-right, Kahanist government in Tel Aviv, enabling it to continue the statelessness of the Palestinians. It could also give Pakistan’s rulers confidence that they would face minimal international blowback should they intensify repression at home.
And if normalization with Israel is seen as being tied to the denial of the civil and democratic rights of Pakistanis at home, it would only serve to deepen anti-Semitism in the country.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine. He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.