In Pakistan, Talk of Israel and 'Jewish Money' Is Rocking Politics (Again)

Pakistan's opposition hosts Hamas at mass rallies against a 'Jewish-Indian plot': Illegal funding for Prime Minister Imran Khan's army-backed party, in exchange for normalizing relations with Israel. It’s a potent rallying cry

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A flag flutters during an anti-Israel rally organized in January by Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) in Karachi, Pakistan
A flag flutters during an anti-Israel rally organized in January by Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) in Karachi, Pakistan.Credit: AKHTAR SOOMRO/ REUTERS

"Barry C. Schneps."

That’s the unlikely name on the lips of a swathe of Pakistani opposition figures, who allege he is the Israeli mastermind behind an illegal decade-old scheme to fund Prime Minister Imran Khan for the nefarious benefit of the State of Israel, including recent chatter about the possibility of Pakistan’s recognition of the Jewish state.

At a mid-January rally outside the Election Commission of Pakistan, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, daughter and political heir of former prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif, directly accused Khan of taking funds from Israel, calling it part of the "biggest fraud in Pakistan's history."

Maryam Nawaz, who is the effective head of the biggest centrist opposition party (Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, or PML-N), also declared: "Do you know who funded Imran Khan from India? Bharatiya Janata Party member Inder Dosanjh. And the Israeli who funded him was Barry C. Schneps." 

She maintained that "countless" Indians and Israelis had funded Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf party, and warned: "When you take money from someone, you have to do their bidding." 

Two days earlier, Karachi witnessed a major protest rally against Pakistan establishing relations with Israel, ambitiously marketed as a "million man march." Tens of thousands of protestors from several opposition parties did attend, spanning the political spectrum, from the Islamist Jamiat Ulema Islam (led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman) to the centrist Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz. 

The rally showed video messages from two significant, if controversial, Palestinian figures.

The first was the head of the militant group Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, who declared: "Pakistan has always supported the Palestinians’ struggle" and that Palestinians, in response, "care for the sentiments of the Pakistani nation," and Ekrima Sabri, imam of the Al-Aqsa mosque, who praised the protestors’ "passionate" refusal to accept Israel as "standing up for the right cause," and a demonstration that the Muslim "ummah is not ready to accept defeat."

Hamas head Ismail Haniyeh in his video address to the Karachi anti-Israel rally organised by the Pakistan Democratic MovementCredit: YouTube

Taking up the Israel funding theme was senior Islamist politician Rehman, one of the co-heads of the anti-Khan coalition, known as the Pakistan Democratic Movement, which organized the protest.

"Israel and India are Pakistan's enemies. You [India and Israel] are using their money to make a person [Khan] [the prime minister]. Pakistan is a nuclear power, by making such a person sit on [the chair], they [Pakistan’s genuine regional allies] all become suspicious," he claimed.

'Israel and India are Pakistan's enemies': Islamist Jamiat Ulema Islam party leader and co-head of the Pakistan Democratic Movement, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, addresses the Karachi rallyCredit: YouTube

While alleging the involvement of Israel’s hidden hand is an old tactic by politicians in Pakistan to discredit their political competition, the recent uptick in talk about potential Pakistan-Israel ties has given new life to the allegations of Jewish and/or Israeli funding. 

And "Barry C. Schneps" has become a mythical figure on whom opposition politicians from the center and from the Islamist right can project (not for the first time) their criticisms of Khan as a tool of foreign powers, not least the international Jewish lobby in cahoots with Israel.

The fact that Pakistan’s most powerful opposition leader chose to use the Israel-Jewish influence trope is a salient reminder of its power to energize and steer public opinion, and of how the issue of Pakistan-Israel relations may now be determined by domestic politics rather than national interests.

Prime Minister Imran Khan's party has been indeed fighting a foreign funding case at the Election Commission of Pakistan since 2014. The case has dragged on, for a suspiciously long time.

The complaint against Khan’s "Indian and Jewish lobbies" funding was initially filed by a founding member of the Tehreek-i-Insaaf party, Akbar S. Babar, who became disillusioned by Imran Khan's allegedly corrupt practices.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during a joint news conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan.Credit: Rahmat Gul,AP

Babar chose to fight for the control of his party through the Election Commission of Pakistan; however, the case has witnessed unprecedented delays and remains undecided, and has now become a key cause celebre for the opposition. Babar claims that an audit in 2011 had revealed illegal funding in the party but that its report was not made public.

Five years ago, a famous news anchor, Arshad Sharif, claimed to have proof of "Indian and Jewish" foreign funding of Imran Khan's party, mentioning Barry C. Schneps by name.

The case metastasized: Shneps, a New Jersey lawyer, was now a "Jewish conduit" for "Israeli funds," even though no evidence that he is even Israeli has appeared.

According to various reports, what appears to have happened is that is a dual Pakistani-American national, M. Asif Chaudhary, who worked in the law office of Barry C. Schneps, donated between $750 to $1000 on behalf of himself and three other local friends to PTI in 2012. 

Foreign funding of parties in Pakistan is forbidden according to the Elections Act 2017. 

As opposition parties align under the umbrella of the Pakistan Democratic Movement, a union of 11 major political parties of Pakistan with a single point agenda of ousting Khan from power, the issue of Israel has become a key point of differentiation between the army-backed Khan government and the opposition.

Leaders of the opposition coalition, the Pakistan Democratic Movement: Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, center, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, right, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, left, at an anti-government rally in Lahore.Credit: K.M. Chaudary,AP

The opposition‘s aim is to undermine any faith in the government’s words, and to expose what is calls its double-dealing. The Israel issue is a perfect fit: it chimes with a long tradition of extreme suspicion towards Israel and "Jewish funding" (Khan got flak for meeting George Soros last year), Palestinian rights is a genuinely popular issue, and the trust deficit can be endlessly played on.

While Prime Minister Khan and his foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, continue denying any peace overtures to Israel, there are still constant reports of secret communication channels and claims of surreptitious visits by "influential" Israelis to Islamabad.

Ever since Pakistan's "hybrid regime"  - the cohabitation of civilian and military establishments in support of the ruling party - came to power in 2018, opposition parties have refused to accept Imran Khan as prime minister, often calling him "selected," a mocking reference to him being "selected" by the military establishment to rule Pakistan.

While there is no direct evidence to suggest that Israel, or any Israeli, funnelled funds to Imran Khan, the foreign funding case has clearly managed to fuel the opposition's umbrella movement by turning more of the public away from Khan's government.

Khan himself has admitted Pakistan has come under intense pressure from a “brotherly Muslim country” to move towards ties with Israel. The clear insinuation was that the source of pressure was Saudi Arabia, on whom Pakistan has depended for financial support.

But it also seems clear that the military establishment, on whom Khan is dependent, is warming to relations with Israel - and that this is a trajectory that will continue even after the Jared Kushner-Donald Trump era of sticks and carrots to accelerate Arab and Muslim states’ normalization of relations with Israel.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, meets with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Oct, 15, 2019Credit: ,AP

Biden's Middle East policy "will be to support a mutually agreed, two-state solution, in which Israel lives in peace and security, alongside a viable Palestinian state," in the words of the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Mills.

That two-state language, if adopted by Israel, could defang some of the critiques aimed at Pakistan-Israel ties.

Indeed, days after Joe Biden’s inauguration, Pakistan's generals found it wise to remove career diplomat Raja Ali Ejaz and install a retired general, Bilal Akbar, as Pakistan's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, reflecting that Pakistan's foreign policy is dominated not by its parliamentary center, Islamabad, but by the army seat of power, Rawalpindi, the same Rawalpindi which seems inclined for peace with Israel.

And the army seems to be cultivating supportive voices on the Israel issue even among what London-based researcher and author Ayesha Siddiqa calls "rabid religious clerics."

Only weeks before the mass rally, Maulana Mohammad Khan Sherani, a senior Islamist leader and a former member of the JUI-F, expressed a willingness to accept Israel, backing his stance with arguments from Muslim tradition.

He was subsequently kicked out of the JUI-F, and promptly started criticizing the Pakistan Democratic Movement, now led by his former party boss, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, reflecting that perhaps he was taking new directions from new handlers.

Maryam Nawaz Sharif addresses a protest rally in front of the election commission in Islamabad against Prime Minister Imran Khan for alleged illegal foreign funding for his party.Credit: FAROOQ NAEEM - AFP

Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the U.S., and now at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., explained in an interview that "Pakistanis have been brought up on a steady diet of anti-Israel sentiment, and Pakistan’s security establishment would have to deal with it before moving ahead with normalization with Israel." Thus its influence-by-proxy campaign.

Haqqani continued: "Many thinking Pakistanis understand the advantages of normal relations with Israel but rational thinking in Pakistan often runs against decades of brainwashing."

Siddiqa argues that a lot is cooking between Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Israel. She writes: "[T]he recognition of Israel has emerged as a new common cause, a matter on which Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are tied, as if by an umbilical cord. Both cannot move forward without the other. One will not do it unless the other does it."

From its side, Israel is just as interested in expanding its circle of non-belligerence (not least next-door to arch-enemy Iran), especially to influential Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan which, to varying degrees, steer the direction the Sunni Muslim world will take.

And while Israel never intended to become such a powerful wedge issue in Pakistani politics, the old "Jewish conspiracy theories" have in some way worked in its favor, with the issue of relations with a small Middle Eastern state punching way above its weight in the national discourse.

Activists of Jamiat Ulema-e Islam�Pakistan, take part in an anti-Israel demonstration in Karachi in mid-January.Credit: ASIF HASSAN - AFP

One might hope this would lead to a genuinely combative but informed national debate which would actually impact the country’s decision. Those high hopes face two major obstacles: The first about the quality and motivations of that debate, and the second about its impact on policy.

The opaque background to chatter about normalization continues to be used to discredit Imran Khan and his government, especially at a politically volatile time when the opposition is using every weapon in its arsenal to remove Khan from power. The Karachi rally shows that protesting any movement towards Israel is itself a potent rallying cry.

If peace really is on the table, it should be brought to the public sphere so that regular people can make their own decisions based on accurate information, not on allegations made for political leverage. And Israel has a part to play: it should try not to fuel rumors that inflate the already oversized image it has in Pakistan, where it is often forced into the country's national discourse.

Haqqani comments: “In the end, Pakistan’s position on Israel will be determined by Pakistan’s domestic politics, not by who is in charge in Washington.”

But there’s a shadow over the whole nascent national debate, captured by Pakistani journalist Naila Inayat, in an article with the sarcastic headline: "Pakistan’s enemy number one is Israel now. India can wait."

Inayat warns: "[To] think that the common Pakistani has a say in foreign policy is laughable. If the winds have to change, they will change, and the jazbaat [sensibilities] of the people will be the last thing anyone would worry about."

The issue of Pakistan-Israel relations is the latest battlefield for the tug-of-war between martial law and democracy, ruling party and opposition in Pakistan – and it could still end up an unwitting player in, or casualty of, those high-stakes skirmishes. 

Hamza Azhar Salam is a Pakistani journalist based in London. He is the co-founder of The Pakistan Daily and Migrant News and has worked as a reporter for Pakistan’s The News International. Twitter: @HamzaAzhrSalam

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