The attitude in Pakistan toward Israel is slowly changing, according to Shahzeb Jillani, the new Middle East correspondent for BBC South Asia and the news organization's first journalist to visit Israel in 10 years.
Albeit a minority, "there are people who believe that Israel is a reality and Pakistan can benefit from economic ties with Israel," Jillani told The Jerusalem Post on Monday during a five-day visit to Jerusalem, Beersheba and Hebron.
Based in Beirut, Jillani was encouraged by the vibrant discussion on his blog about his trip to Israel from people on all sides of the debate. "There are people who are pleased that they are getting to see aspects of Israeli life that they wouldn't know otherwise," he said.
Pakistan does not recognize Israel, though talks mediated by Turkey were held between the two countries in September 2005. As early as 2003, then-president Pervez Musharraf called for better relations with Israel at a Camp David meeting, but backed off after a public outcry at home.
Some Pakistani security experts are urging better relations between the two countries so Pakistan, which relies almost exclusively on American-made weapons, can diversify its military supply sources. India recognized Israel in 1950 and established formal diplomatic relations in 1992. Israel is now India's biggest military supplier.
Jillani said he plans to visit Israel frequently in the future, and hopes that the blogs and stories from this initial visit can inspire readers to initiate grassroots connections between Israel and Pakistan.
Jillani, an eight-year veteran of BBC offices around the world, strives to maintain objectivity for readers who are often strongly anti-Israel. The Post caught up with him toward the end of his trip to hear his impressions about the country and the possibility of warmer relations between Pakistan and Israel.
What do Pakistanis think of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Like every country, we have liberals and conservatives, very religious and very secular people. But on the issue of Israel, I would say that 97 percent support the Palestinian cause. They believe the Palestinians are being wronged, that Israel is a source of evil in the region. They also have a deep bias against Jewish people. I think that has happened more and more over the past 30 years.
There used to be Jews living in Karachi [the largest city and financial capital of Pakistan], but in the last few decades there's been radicalization and more violence. However, I've been getting some interesting responses from the minority view on my blog. They are Pakistanis who are saying that it's about time we started connecting to Israel. They're not saying we'll have full blown diplomatic relations with Israel tomorrow, but that we need to start this contact.
Maybe informal contact - art, sport, cricket. Usually these things happen at the low level, gradually people start to change things. But there are people who believe that Israel is a reality and Pakistan can benefit from economic ties with Israel. Israel has ties in the Muslim world with Egypt and Jordan, so why not with Pakistan? But that's a minority view. Very few people would dare say it openly, but they post it on the blog.
Where does your view fall on that scale?
In my blog I'm not taking any position, I'm a journalist. I'm curious, I want to see diversity in Israeli society. And I'm going to learn about Israelis and the Jewish faith. I'm not advocating one thing or another. I believe in debate, I believe in discussion, and I think people in Pakistan need to learn about Israel.
And in the end they may decide that they were hating Israel for the right reasons. But hate out of ignorance is stupid. People need to open up their minds and learn to be tolerant. If we established even limited political contact, it would be good for Israelis to know more about Pakistanis and for Pakistanis to know more about Israelis.
What steps would you take if you were in charge of initiating Pakistani-Israeli contact?
I went to Beersheba and met these Jews who migrated from Karachi, Pakistan, who were playing cricket. These are the people that could make a vital link. One of them told me that when you get old, your long-term memory becomes short, and he'd been thinking a lot about his childhood in Karachi. He said he really wanted to go back to visit the building where he grew up. Obviously Pakistan wouldn't let him come, though, because he's Israeli. This is where we can start. Let these kinds of people come on a tour and revisit those areas. Or maybe there could be an exchange of cricketers, an under-19 group of Pakistani cricket players could come to Beersheba.
I think India has played it very well. On a diplomatic and UN level, they side with Palestinian causes. But India is also looking out for their economic and defense interests by engaging in an ever-rising exchange with the Israeli government. India's policy toward Palestinians and Israelis is admirable. India has the same number of Muslims as Pakistan, about 180 or 190 million Muslims. So if India can do it, we should be able to as well.
What are the challenges to creating Israeli-Pakistani relations?
My sense is that [Israeli] society in recent times has become more hard-line. And the voices that used to urge dialogue and engagement have been suppressed. Maybe they're still there, but they are not being heard by people outside of Israel.
Is this 'more hard-line' society going to have a harder time initiating a bridge with Pakistan?
It's not Israelis who have a problem with Pakistan, it's Pakistan that has a problem with Israel. I've talked to people and asked them, do you think Pakistan's nuclear program is a threat to Israel, since they're the only Muslim country, supposedly, with nukes right now? And most people have told me no, we don't think Pakistan is going to attack us. Pakistan has not recognized Israel, so maybe what Israel should do is offer incentives. Incentives like the possibility of Pakistan benefitting economically and militarily to balance India's power in the region. The Pakistani worldview is based on India's position with other countries. India is building bridges with Israel. There was a movement during Musharraf's time, a couple of years ago, when Turkey was mediating talks [between Israel and Pakistan in September 2005]. But the public opinion in Pakistan was so against Israel that it kind of fizzled out.
Has public opinion changed at all?
No, there hasn't been any effort to change it. But contact from Israelis and incentives from Israelis could make the Pakistani leadership rethink. The starting point would be getting intellectuals on board, Pakistani intellectuals - writers, thinkers, and starting a debate, why is it taboo to talk about Israel? It will take a while, once you have a debate going. But only once it becomes acceptable now to debate these things, only then can you change public opinion. But I do think it will never happen at the cost of Palestinians. Pakistan can never be seen to be abandoning the Palestinian cause as they develop ties with Israel. Just like India has never abandoned the Palestinian cause. Publicly, diplomatically, you speak of the Palestinians, but on a local level, start relations with Israel.
What has your favorite thing been about Israel so far?
There's no one thing I would say has been a favorite, but I'm just amazed by the Old City in Jerusalem. There's Jews, Christians carrying a cross, Muslims... People from three of the world's biggest religions. I don't know what's in their hearts, but it makes me think coexistence is doable, they just need to figure out the political problems.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>