Published originally in The Media Line.

[Islamabad] Pakistan reaffirmed its policy against trade with Israel following a tweet from a Jewish Pakistani businessman in which he claimed to have exported food products to Israel.

The Foreign Ministry and Trade and Commerce Ministry in Pakistan responded to the rumor on Sunday, days after the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress), an organization of American Jews that aims to defend Jewish interests in the US and abroad, announced that Pakistani food products had been exported to Israel. The Pakistani ministries dismissed the claims as “sheer propaganda.”

The Ministry of Trade and Commerce statement affirmed that “Pakistan does not have diplomatic ties with Israel and does not recognize it as a sovereign state and neither … trades with Israel nor has banking relations.”

According to the statement, while Pakistani food products did reach Israel, they were not exported directly to the country and payment was not received in a Pakistani bank.

“Terming it trade between Pakistan and Israel is misleading and factually incorrect,” the ministry wrote in the statement.

“There is no change in Pakistan’s policy about the Jewish state,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baluch told reporters.

Terming it trade between Pakistan and Israel is misleading and factually incorrect

The story reached Pakistan after a press release from the AJCongress on Thursday heralding the cooperation between Jewish Pakistani businessman Fishel BenKhald and three Israeli businessmen based in Jerusalem and Haifa.

“We welcome this small step that can have wider implications for the Israeli and Pakistani economies and for the region at large,” the AJCongress said in the statement.

BenKhald himself announced the deal in a tweet last Tuesday. “Congratulation to Me as a Pakistani. I exported first batch of Pakistan food products to Israel market. Dates, Dry fruit, Spice,” he tweeted, using emojis for the flags of Pakistan and Israel. The tweet, which also featured a video clip of Pakistani dried fruits on display in a Jerusalem market, garnered more than 2 million views.

BenKhald clarified that his export was not the very first export of Pakistani goods to Israel, noting that logistical workarounds to the trade embargo exist for those willing to put in the work to find them.

In a tweet responding to the AJCongress’s report, he wrote, “Food, trade, music and tourism bring people together. Let’s build bridges.”

BenKhald told the Voice of America radio station that he was surprised by the intensity of the response. “I was not expecting it to be taken as that big of a deal,” he said. “The Israeli government and buyers have no problem accepting the direct shipment from Pakistan.”

Pakistani Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said in an interview that no one had been given permission to export to Israel and that the matter will be investigated. He noted that some reports had suggested that former Prime Minister Imran Khan had given some individuals permission to export to Israel, but clarified that investigations had not found that to be true.

While permission to export goods was not granted, Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, special representative to the Prime Minister on Interfaith Harmony and the Middle East, told The Media Line that “the Pakistani Jew who sent the goods to Israel had been granted official permission to visit Israel during Imran Khan’s tenure.”

Ashrafi emphasized that Pakistan would not consider recognizing Israel “until the Palestine issue is resolved.”

Pakistan is one of around 30 countries that do not recognize Israel as a state and Pakistani citizens are legally prohibited from visiting Israel. Pakistani passports feature a note that the passport “is valid for all countries of the world except Israel.”

Like many other Muslim-majority states, Pakistan insists that an independent Palestinian state be established before recognizing Israel’s sovereignty.

In the past few years, though, an increasing number of Muslim-majority countries have forged ties with Israel. In 2020, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco signed the US-brokered Abraham Accords, recognizing Israel’s sovereignty and normalizing diplomatic relations.

It remains to be seen whether the trend of normalization will continue.

“It is understandable that Pakistan does not have a direct business relationship with Israel since both countries lack diplomatic ties. This is a sovereign decision for both Israel and Pakistan to make. The initiative by Pakistani and Israeli entrepreneurs to engage each other is admirable and encouraging and serves the economies of both Pakistan and Israel,” AJCongress President Jack Rosen told The Media Line.

Rosen said that he and AJCongress “worked closely with the governments of both Pakistan and Israel in 2005, on steps to ensure that dividends of peace reach Pakistanis and Israelis. As a result, the government of Israel removed import licenses and restrictions on Pakistani products.”

Rosen expressed optimism about trade relations between the two countries and told The Media Line: “We look forward to a time when Pakistan and Israel realize their full trading potential and jointly expand regional peace constituencies.”

“The current political context in Israel is not an easy one for the Abraham Accords, as well as for Israeli efforts to expand them,” Nimrod Goren, president and founder of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, told The Media Line.

He noted that the policies promoted by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the controversial figures in Netanyahu’s government can be alienating to Israel’s current and potential partners in the region.

I don’t think there’s any chance of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and Pakistan

Despite the complicated political context in Israel, Goren said that it is still worth it to try to improve relations with other countries in the region.

“It is important to advance efforts that increase de facto engagement, even if at unofficial levels, between Israel and regional countries while acknowledging that it may take some time – and require some changes in Israeli politics – before breakthroughs could happen. This is probably also true in the case of ties with Pakistan,” he said.

Umar Karim, a leading South Asian expert and visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London, was skeptical that ties between Israel and Pakistan could improve, whether through official ties or de facto relations.

“I don’t think there’s any chance of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and Pakistan,” Karim told The Media Line.

“Even covert political or security engagement also remains unlikely as the Pakistani public remains extremely sensitive on the Palestinian issue, and any act that adds to the legitimacy of the Zionist state will remain unacceptable to an overwhelmingly large majority of Pakistanis,” he said.

He noted that any government official who tries to improve relations with Israel would face not only anger from fellow politicians but potentially even violence.

Irina Tsukerman, a New York-based national security analyst focusing on South Asia, told The Media Line that much work remains to be done before Pakistan could enter into an agreement like the Abraham Accords.

“Pakistan has a significant extremism problem, which makes the pursuit of formal exchanges challenging out of security concerns,” she said.

Tsukerman applauded such “small acts of friendship” as the recent exports, but noted that their importance should not be overstated. “Pakistan may need its own model for building relations with Israel,” she said.

 Every such event generates a debate in Pakistan and slowly adds to creating a small but politically relevant space for Israel

According to Dr. Azeem Khalid, professor of international relations at COMSATS University Islamabad, last week’s exports were just one of several acts of cooperation between the two countries, despite their lack of diplomatic relations.

“This should be seen as the continuation of the previous meetings and events happening between Pakistan and Israel at different levels, sometimes involving government officials as well,” he told The Media Line.

“Every such event generates a debate in Pakistan and slowly adds to creating a small but politically relevant space for Israel,” he said.

As evidence for the potentially increasing legitimacy of relations with Israel within the Pakistani political framework, Khalid called attention to the fact that neither Israel nor Pakistan chose to comment on the exports until the AJCongress had publicized it.

© 2020 American Jewish Congress.