Will Pakistan surrender to pro-Israel pressure?

Man stands at a podium with a backdrop of green stone behind him

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif speaks during a session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York, on 23 September 2022.

Wang Ying Xinhua News Agency

Sharaka, a shadowy organization based in the United Arab Emirates and Israel, is pushing forward with efforts to promote diplomatic ties between Pakistan and the Zionist state.

Pakistan has always refused such ties, in solidarity with the Palestinian people. But while Islamabad has distanced itself from Sharaka’s normalization efforts, it has not clearly denounced or discouraged them – sending at the very least a mixed signal about its stance.

Sharaka is bringing Pakistanis to Israel under the guise of promoting “interfaith” cooperation.

But the real purpose of these visits – typically led by Muslim Zionists – is to open a path to formal diplomatic and even military relations between Islamabad and Tel Aviv.

One such Pakistani delegation made a trip to Israel last month, and it included a former government official.

“The goal was to create another stepping stone toward Israel-Pakistan relations,” Sharaka said in an email newsletter. The Washington-based American Muslim and Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council (AMMWEC) also helped arrange the junket.

Previously, Nasim Ashraf served as a minister of state and chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board. He also holds US citizenship.

Ashraf openly discussed the political motivations behind the “interfaith” charade in an interview with Israeli satellite channel i24 News while in Jerusalem.

“Pakistan wants to have relations. But at the same time, Pakistan has consistently supported the Palestinian issue and its position vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said.

In response to a question about future Israeli “military cooperation” with Pakistan given the latter’s nuclear capabilities, Ashraf reassured the Israeli anchor.

“Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and nuclear assets have absolutely nothing to do and are of no threat to Israel. Pakistan’s nuclear assets are a defensive deterrent against India,” the former minister said.

“It’s not at all directed at anyone else. Least of all, Israel.”

Touring Israel

The delegation was taken to the Gaza-Israel boundary fence, according to tweets by a Texas-based reporter who went on the trip. The group visited the Muslim Quarter in the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem.

They explored “Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious sites to see how Israel provides freedom of religion for all,” Sharaka said, completely disregarding Israel’s systematic violations of the rights of Palestinian Muslims and Christians to practice their faiths.

The purpose of the tour was “to learn about the complexities of the conflict and Israel’s efforts to provide jobs, water, electricity and medicine to the Palestinians while fighting against terrorists,” Sharaka added.

All of this falls within Israel’s usual propaganda strategy – typical of colonial rulers – of touting itself as a beacon of advancement and innovation even for the Indigenous people whose land and rights it is violently usurping.

The organization omitted to mention Israel’s debilitating siege on the Gaza Strip, now in its 15th year, which has caused catastrophic consequences for the coastal enclave’s two million residents who are mostly refugees, while denying them life-saving medical care.

Gaza has among the highest unemployment and poverty levels in the world due to the blockade and successive military attacks since 2007.

The delegation also met with President Isaac Herzog, who “blessed the work Sharaka is doing,” according to the group.

In order to give a veneer of Palestinian consent and participation, the delegation met with Bassem Eid, a Palestinian who has for decades participated in Israel-backed anti-Palestinian propaganda campaigns.

Qasim Khan Suri, an ex-deputy speaker of the Pakistan National Assembly tweeted about the visit, saying the group was “in Israel for secret talks.”

This is not the first trip of its kind organized by Sharaka, whose stated goal is “realizing the tremendous potential of the Abraham Accords.”

The Abraham Accords are a series of deals brokered by the US between Israel and several Arab states since 2020. They aim to consolidate military, economic and political cooperation between Israel and other local American client regimes while putting an end to the Palestinian national liberation struggle.

A similar trip to Israel was organized earlier this year by the same two organizations.

While the latest Pakistani delegation was in Israel, i24 News reported that a “senior official from Indonesia” was also in Israel on a secret visit.

The Indonesian foreign ministry flatly denied the claim.

“As long as Palestine is under Israeli occupation, Indonesia will not open diplomatic relations with Israel,” the ministry’s Middle East Director told local news site Tempo.

“This never happened and Indonesia’s stance will always be the same.”

A ministry spokesperson also told media “he did not know who senior officials the article was referring to” are, according to Tempo.

Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. The country has no formal diplomatic relations with Israel.

The report in Israeli media may have been intended to probe the reaction it would produce in Indonesia, perhaps in advance of efforts to try to co-opt that country as well.

Future of relations

As for Pakistan, it is difficult to say which direction it is headed.

Foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari reaffirmed that the recent Sharaka delegation “has nothing to do with the government of Pakistan,” insisting that his country’s position on Palestine is “clear and always has been.”

That echoed the position given earlier by the foreign ministry in Islamabad.

But Bhutto, like the ministry, pointedly failed to denounce the recent delegations or discourage Pakistanis from participating in them – even though the organizers state clearly that their ultimate goal is to establish formal ties between Pakistan and Israel.

After an effectively US-backed putsch led to Imran Khan’s removal as Pakistan’s prime minister in April, he was replaced by Shehbaz Sharif, who previously expressed enthusiasm for “deepening” Pakistan’s relationship with the United States.

The Sharif family is notorious for its corruption.

But even the Sharifs, regarded as reliable US allies, have begun to slip from Washington’s grip.

Earlier this month, while speaking at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan, Sharif sounded consistent with his predecessor’s refusal of American pressure to cut ties with Russia following the latter’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.

Sharif lavished praise on Russia and its president, promising “to build our relations with your great country with full commitment and full dedication, because you are a superpower.”

“You are a man of action. You decide, and then you implement,” Sharif told Vladimir Putin.

But this week, General Qamar Bajwa, the outgoing chief of Pakistan’s army, headed to Washington for meetings with top American officials.

“We are seeing greater interaction between the political and military leadership of both countries,” Nasim Zehra, an Islamabad-based analyst, told Al Jazeera. “I wouldn’t rule out this trip involving discussions of greater military cooperation.”

That is significant, as the Pakistani military has tended to have the final say over the country’s direction, having repeatedly overthrown civilian governments.

The Pakistani military was a close ally of the United States during its proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s and again during the so-called War on Terror following the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Islamabad is now undoubtedly caught between its traditional role as a client of the United States, a waning geopolitical power, and the impulse to align with rising Eurasian powers much closer to home, especially China and Russia.

One indicator as to which way it is heading is whether Sharaka’s efforts to foster ties with Tel Aviv start to meet with success.

In the meantime, the Sharif government’s failure to clearly denounce and discourage such normalization efforts is not a good sign.

Tamara Nassar is associate editor and Ali Abunimah is executive director of The Electronic Intifada.