Small delegation to Israel sparks huge debate in Pakistan over relations with Jewish state

“People-to-people diplomacy between Pakistanis and Israelis is going to change the world,” says one of the trip’s organizers.

By David Isaac,

The mostly Pakistani-American delegation that visited Israel in May billed itself in a somewhat low-key manner as an “interfaith group” supportive of the Abraham Accords. It therefore came as a surprise when the trip sparked a major public debate in Pakistan.

“We’ve for the first time had a very robust, rich, public open debate on the possibility of Pakistan-Israel ties,” said Ahmed Quraishi, a Pakistani journalist who accompanied the delegation and was later fired for doing so by state-run Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV).

“There wasn’t a talk show in Pakistan that did not cover this story, that did not debate potential relations with Israel,” Quraishi told JNS.

“It had been a taboo subject. Pakistani analysts, think tank types, retired officers, ambassadors would not discuss this topic publicly,” he said. “They would do it behind closed doors, but nothing on record. Nobody wanted to be trolled by the naysayers, by political opponents and by religious extremists.”

Quraishi said that the current public discussion has nevertheless been mostly positive.

“Pakistanis asked, ‘Why not talk to Israel? We’re talking to India—and Pakistan’s position is that India is occupying Kashmir. Yet, we have an Indian Embassy here in Islamabad.’ That was the tone. It was a huge step forward,” he said.

Another welcome change was that Pakistani politicians stayed out of the fray.

“They refrained from jumping in to condemn Israel and repeat their pledges of support for Palestine. They left the discussion to social media influencers, journalists and talk-show hosts,” noted Quraishi.

He never imagined that the delegation’s visit would generate such intense publicity, given that a high-profile 2005 meeting in Istanbul between the foreign ministers of Pakistan and Israel did not generate such interest. Then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf hoped the meeting would launch a debate that would bring pro-Israel elements out of the woodwork.

The diplomatic move was “shock therapy,” said Quraishi, who at one point worked with Musharraf’s media team. “Nothing could be bigger than the Pakistani foreign minister shaking hands with the Israeli foreign minister in front of all those cameras, but the hoped-for [public] debate didn’t happen,” he said.

A confluence of factors is responsible for changing the situation and thrusting Quraishi into the spotlight.

The story began when Sharaka, the NGO that sponsored the delegation’s trip, posted a picture of the group in Israel to Twitter. The photo caught the attention of Shireen Mazari, a politician in the previous Pakistani government led by Imran Khan, who claimed he was deposed as prime minister in April in a U.S.-led conspiracy.

Mazari threw Israel into the mix by tweeting, “Part of U.S. regime-change conspiracy agenda—to covertly build up ties with Israel!” She included a picture of the group with a red mark above Quraishi, whom she identified as a “govt/state employee.”

“She linked it with the conspiracy … And that became headlines in Pakistan,” said Quraishi. Pakistanis could perhaps understand traveling to Israel to visit holy sites, but “many asked, ‘What was a state channel employee doing there? They saw it as clear evidence of covert diplomacy,” he added.

Herzog: ‘An amazing experience’

The group’s meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog garnered additional attention–and then, even more, when two weeks later, on May 26, Herzog mentioned it at the World Economic Forum at Davos, calling the encounter an “amazing experience.”

The next day, Geo News, the largest Pakistani media outlet, aired a clip of the comments.

During a political rally on May 29, Pakistan’s former prime minister claimed the video, along with the earlier Twitter picture, was further proof that he had been ousted from power in a conspiracy.

The Herzog clip and the Khan rally were the “two biggest events” that transformed the story into a national debate, Quraishi said.

“It was the first time an Israeli president talked so effusively and in a very positive way about Pakistan. Herzog became a household name. No Israeli leader has become a household name in Pakistan—not Ariel Sharon, not Shimon Peres, not Yitzhak Rabin,” he said. “Israel was front and center in the mainstream national politics of Pakistan.”

Quraishi has received a tremendous number of messages from ordinary Pakistanis–especially young journalists, filmmakers and social media activists–asking how Israelis treated him and what Israelis think of Pakistan. The main question he has been asked: “How can we visit Israel?”

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Many also expressed interest in Israel’s high-tech sector. Said Quraishi, “There’s hardly a young man or woman studying in university, who is not running a side hustle on Fiverr,” the Israeli web platform headquartered in Tel Aviv, that allows freelancers to offer services ranging from fitness lessons to computer coding.

Noor Dahri, founder and executive director of the Islamic Theology of Counter-Terrorism (ITCT), a U.K.-based think tank, said it was unfortunate that Quraishi became a scapegoat for the Pakistani government. Still, he believes there is a tremendous upside to the saga.

“Pakistanis are thinking differently [about Israel],” Dahri told JNS. “This is what I wanted.”

Dahri said he was virtually alone when he set out to change the hearts and minds of Pakistanis by founding the Pakistan-Israel Alliance, which was active from 2016 to 2018.

He noted that there was another debate concerning Israel two years ago, one that he started by breaking the news that a political adviser to Pakistan’s prime minister had secretly visited the Jewish state.

This latest debate is different

“That was in December-January 2020. There was a debate on every single Pakistani channel about Pakistan-Israel relations,” said Dahri while clarifying that the Pakistani politician eventually admitted to traveling to Israel.

However, he said the latest debate is different. He pointed to the fact that the previous one centered on whether a visit to Israel had taken place, with the government denying it; whereas now, the conversation is not about whether or not something happened but, rather, on establishing ties with Israel.

“Today, they are debating. Tomorrow, they will think about it. And the day after tomorrow, they will realize the fact that relations with Israel is 100 percent to the benefit of Pakistan,” said Dahri.

Dahri himself underwent a startling transformation. A devout Muslim, he joined a jihadist group in Afghanistan in the 1990s. When he moved to the United Kingdom, he met Jews while working for the police. These encounters challenged his worldview and he began to read and think about Israel.

“The journey was long but very positive,” he said.

When Dahri’s new opinions became known, he was forced to flee to an undisclosed location with his family. “I didn’t feel safe to live in London anymore around Muslims,” said Dahri. “I knew I would be the only Muslim, the only Pakistani, without any support from the Muslim community. But someone had to come forward. This is what my religion, Islam, says: Speak the truth, even if the whole world leaves you. And I think that I made the right decision. Now, thank God, 100,000 people in Pakistan, in the U.K. and across the world show solidarity with me.”

Dahri writes books, articles and creates videos in Urdu for Pakistani audiences. He said social media has opened Muslim eyes to the freedoms enjoyed in Western countries and Israel, and they’re asking why they don’t have the same rights and opportunities. The Abraham Accords also had an impact.

“The same Arab rulers who induced hate against Israel now embrace Israel. The public sees that their leaders have now changed the narratives,” said Dahri.

Israel can help foster normalization with Pakistan by starting Urdu social media accounts, he said. “If one person can change the minds of thousands of Pakistanis, then state-run social media accounts can change hundreds of thousands, millions.”

Meanwhile, more trips are being planned. Anila Ali, the founder of the American Muslim & Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council (AMMWEC), which co-organized the delegation’s trip with Sharaka, said she has been inundated by messages.

“All people are asking me is how can we go there [to Israel]? I feel like a travel agent,” said Ali. “I can tell you there’s been an outpouring. Even from volatile areas like Kashmir people are sending me messages and saying, ‘Ma’am, you did this for peace in Israel. You must tell them that we also don’t hate Israel.’

“Now I have to take more people. I’m going out for the next month, talking to organizations to help me send more tours,” Ali said. “People-to-people diplomacy between Pakistanis and Israelis is going to change the world.”