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Did Israel's PM Netanyahu Secretly Visit Islamabad? How One Tweet Sparked Hysteria and a Political Crisis in Pakistan

A report that an Israeli plane landed in Pakistan led to whirlwind rumors, fierce accusations and blunt denials – and a near-crisis for Imran Khan's new government. Was this another 'Zionist-Hindu conspiracy'? Is there, in fact, any chance Pakistan will recognize Israel?

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Pakistani news channels dedicated hours to analyzing the likelihood an Israeli airplane landed in Islamabad
Pakistani news channels dedicated hours to analyzing the likelihood an Israeli airplane landed in Islamabad -or even that Benjamin Netanyahu had secretly visitedCredit: YouTube screenshot

When Haaretz English editor Avi Scharf tweeted last Thursday that an "Israeli bizjet flew from TLV to Islamabad, #Pakistan, on the ground 10 hours, and back to TLV," neither he nor anyone else could have imagined the dramatic response.

By Friday night, the Urdu and English-language local rumor mill was in overdrive. Online punters and mainstream journalists alike suggested that Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had secretly visited Islamabad, in conjunction with his unprecedented trip to Oman.

That trip was closely followed by another first: Israel's Culture Minister attended the medal-giving ceremony at an international judo championship in Abu Dhabi, where the Israeli national anthem was played for the first time.

Neither Oman nor Pakistan have diplomatic relations with Israel. However, even as Muscat is now calling for formal recognition of the State of Israel, it is highly unlikely that Islamabad will follow suit.

The outraged reaction to the very idea that an Israeli jet could enter Pakistani airspace is a prominent indicator of this. Not only did the Israeli jet rumor hog the local media throughout the weekend, it prompted a war of words between leaders of the ruling party Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) and the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), with the latter demanding full explanations.

Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority denied that an Israeli jet landed in Islamabad. However, since the aircraft in question is registered in the Isle of Man, the Authority would technically be factually correct in its denial, even if, for the sake of argument, the plane itself was owned by a company in Tel Aviv.

>>Pakistan's President Says the Country Will Not Establish Ties With Israel

But in a very public display meant to remove any doubt, the government of Pakistan not only categorically dismissed the very idea that an Israeli jet could land in Islamabad ("No Israeli plane can land in Pakistan"), it has claimed that the report itself is a part of the old-new "Zionist-Hindu conspiracy" against Pakistan.

Topping that, Pakistan's president stated: "Islamabad is not establishing any kind of relations with Israel."

Every Pakistani passport bears the wording: 'Valid for all countries of the world except Israel'Credit: Twitter

By Saturday, the rumor had evolved further to become a "joint Israel and India conspiracy," according to Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, in which the opposition PML-N was also a collaborator.

He said its intention was to malign the Pakistani Army and divert attention from Kashmir’s Black Day, an annual protest against India's occupation of the territory; it was the result of "collusion" between India and Israel to distract attention from their human rights violations against Kashmiris and Palestinians respectively; and it was intended to undermine Pakistan's claim to Kashmir.

The reports of the Israeli jet landing in Islamabad come amidst evolving diplomatic realities for Pakistan.

In the wake of his victory at the polls in July, Prime Minister Imran Khan's most pressing need was to confront the country's multi-pronged economic crisis. Last week, Pakistan got a $6 billion bailout package from Saudi Arabia, just at the moment Riyadh needed public allies following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. For the sake of these funds, Pakistan was willing to jeopardize its ties with Turkey, a country with which it has grown increasingly close under the previous PML-N government.

A man brandishes a Palestinian flag as supporters of Pakistani religious party rally against America in Lahore, Pakistan, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017Credit: K.M. Chaudary / AP

With Oman’s backing of Israel’s recognition hinting at a potential formal acceptance by the Gulf Cooperation Council, and clear indications that the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia are definitively and opening abandoning their anti-normalization stance on Israel, Islamabad might have been expected to follow suit, given its historical toeing of Saudi lines and its current deepening economic dependence on Riyadh.

Whether or not GCC chooses to act as a united front, Saudi ties with Israel have been an open secret that has continued to reveal itself in recent times under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with the isolation of Iran being a common foreign policy goal for both states. Similarly, Pakistan has long effectively undermined its own ties to Iran owing first to its historical ties to the U.S., and more recently, its dependency on Saudi Arabia.

This would make establishing ties with Israel a logical offshoot of Pakistan being firmly placed in the Saudi camp. Should Islamabad choose to overcome its rampant anti-Semitism, and its related, and abundant, conspiracy theories, it might be able to realize that - in addition to an array of common geopolitical interests - Pakistan and Israel share a key characteristic: They are the only two post-colonial states founded on religious nationalism.

In a 2012 interview with Haaretz, former military dictator Pervez Musharraf urged Pakistan to establish relations with Israel. It was under Musharraf’s watch, in 2005, that the only official meeting between Pakistani and Israeli representatives took place.

Supporters of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami hold signs declaring 'Death to Israel' at a rally against U.S. President Trump's Jerusalem decision. Karachi, Pakistan, December 17, 2019Credit: REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Fringe opinions in local English publications have occasionally underlined the rationale for Pakistan accepting Israel, even if the majority of the liberal opinion-makers in the country firmly contend that Israeli violations in Palestine require an absolute condemnation not applicable to those perpetuated by other occupying powers.

>>Pakistan and Israel: Separated at Birth?

Those who argue for Pakistan’s recognition of Israel also urge Islamabad to play an active mediatory part in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is the message emanating from Muscat as well, with Netanyahu’s Oman visit coming in the immediate aftermath of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s three-day visit. Indeed, Oman sent a representative to confer with Abbas immediately after Netanyahu's visit.

Furthermore, there are voices pointing out that despite Pakistan's loud solidarity with the Palestinians, the support has not been reciprocated. The Palestinian leadership hasn’t paid much regard to Pakistan’s side on Kashmir, and has active relations with India. Last year, Palestine recalled its ambassador to Pakistan following India’s objection to the Pakistani envoy’s participation in a rally for the liberation of Jerusalem liberation spearheaded by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) chief Hafiz Saeed, considered the terrorist mastermind behind the deadly 2008 attacks in Mumbai.

That meeting of minds with India was equally expressed by Israel during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit last year, when the Israeli foreign ministry maintained that "there is no difference between Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hamas."

Even so, despite recognizing Israel conferring obvious geopolitical gains for Islamabad, as well as the opportunity to far more effectively engage for the benefit of Palestinians, the move remains extremely unlikely, given what’s at stake for the new PTI government in Pakistan.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has long been shunned by his detractors as a stooge of a "Jewish lobby," owing to his first marriage to Jemima Goldsmith. Khan’s critics have already pounced on the Israeli jet reports to target the premier on these grounds.

Supporters of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf headed Pakistani opposition politician Imran Khan celebrate a court ruling against former PM Nawaz Sharif, Karachi, Pakistan. July 6, 2018Credit: Shakil Adil/AP

Also, given the PTI’s flimsy Parliamentary leads in the central and Punjab governments, Khan cannot afford any controversial maneuvers even if his campaign was backed by the Pakistani Army.

Hence, Islamabad is unlikely to offer more than populist rhetoric on Palestine - and Kashmir; its deliberate hyphenation of the two causes, piggybacking on world interest in Palestine to push its narrative on Kashmir, being used to serve its own political interests.

Given its own backing of jihadist outfits,Pakistan does not have much support from the moral high ground to offer either Kashmir or Palestine. That, in addition to Khan’s own political handicaps and Islamabad’s hysterical reaction to the Israeli jet, means Pakistan really isn’t any closer to recognizing Israel.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist and a correspondent at The Diplomat. His work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Foreign Policy, Courrier International, New Statesman, The Telegraph , MIT Review, and Arab News among other publications. Twitter: @khuldune

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