JERUSALEM — "THIS PASSPORT IS VALID FOR ALL COUNTRIES OF THE WORLD EXCEPT ISRAEL," reads the phrase on every Pakistani passport.
But there was Fishel BenKhald, one of Pakistan's few Jews, gripping that passport in front of the Western Wall, the revered Jewish prayer site in Jerusalem —
"the land where my heart and my soul is connected to," he says.
He arrived in Israel in early May with a rare visit of 15 mostly Pakistani Americans, who traveled on their U.S. passports but who hold close ties in their home country. The trip was organized by an American Muslim women's activist group, and sponsored by an Israeli organization seeking to expand Israel's ties with Muslim-majority countries.
The trip drew little attention from Israelis and Palestinians, but it stirred fury in Pakistan, where opposition politicians including ousted ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan saw it as a secretive opening gambit to end their country's official boycott of Israel. Pakistanis were especially angered that a talk show host from state-run television, whom Khan's supporters claimed is close to Pakistan's military, was on the trip. He was subsequently fired.
"The good news," Ahmed Quraishi, the TV journalist, says about the Israel trip and subsequent controversy, is "we today have the first, robust and rich nationwide debate in Pakistan on establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. This is huge."
Pakistan's senate on Monday passed a resolution confirming its stance against Israel. A senator called for a ban on the organization that spearheaded the trip, the American Muslim and Multifaith Women's Empowerment Council. Some in Pakistan called to strip the expats who traveled to Israel of their Pakistani citizenship.
"This is the price Muslim American Pakistani women have to pay for peace building," the group's co-founder, Anila Ali, told NPR.
The anger in Pakistan surged after Israeli President Isaac Herzog spoke publicly about his private meeting with the Pakistani and Pakistani American delegation at his residence in Jerusalem in early May.
"I must say, this was an amazing experience, because we haven't had a group of Pakistani leaders in Israel ever, on such scope," Herzog said about the civil society activists before an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "That all stemmed from the Abraham Accords."
Why Pakistan boycotts Israel
Pakistan officially refuses to forge diplomatic ties with Israel until Palestinians get an independent state. That's long been the case for many Muslim-majority countries. But in 2020, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain established relations with Israel and signed the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords. Morocco and Sudan have since joined in, and there has been constant speculation among Pakistanis about whether their country might follow suit.
Pakistan and Israel have long held quiet dialogues on military and security matters — both are nuclear powers — and their respective foreign ministers met publicly in 2005.
"I cannot tell you that Pakistan ... is the next state to join the Abraham Accords and that it's going to happen tomorrow," Israeli Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern told NPR. "We hope that every moderate Muslim state, country, in the Middle East will join."
Israel's focus is more on Saudi Arabia than Pakistan
President Biden's anticipated visit to Israel this month has prompted hopes in the country that a new U.S.-brokered normalization deal could be in the works. Israel has set its sights on Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Islam's top holy sites and a heavyweight in the region.
Israeli media report the U.S. is currently mediating talks for what could become a first public Israeli-Saudi agreement over the status of two Red Sea islands where Israeli ships pass.
"The next stage in the Abraham Accords, in normalization, needs to be normalization with Saudi Arabia," Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told Israel Army Radio on Monday. "It's a long, cautious process from both sides."
Though Pakistan is often influenced by its ally Saudi Arabia, the odds today appear stacked against normal relations between Israel and Pakistan.
Many Pakistanis incorporate a Palestinian flag in their social media profiles, and protests against Israel flare up in Pakistan whenever there is an Israeli military escalation with Palestinians. As Pakistan lurches from one political crisis to another, one stance that would almost certainly unite most Pakistanis is opposition to relations with Israel.
There is also deep-seated antisemitism in Pakistan. It is fairly normal in political discourse for events to be blamed on Jews or Jewish conspiracies; the former foreign minister made antisemitic comments on CNN last May.
Geopolitically, Pakistan doesn't have the same concerns about Iran — its nuclear program and its support for militant activities in the Middle East — that drove Pakistan's Gulf neighbors toward Israel.
"If Iran is not the main issue for them, what can they gain?" Eyal Zisser, a Middle East expert at Tel Aviv University, says about Pakistan. "Why should they risk themselves in terms of, you know, the public opinion there?"
But Sharaka, the Israeli group that sponsored the delegation to Israel, says both current and former Pakistani officials acquiesced to BenKhald's participation in the Israel trip.
"I would be shocked if this will be the last delegation of Pakistanis, or Pakistani Americans, to Israel," says Elie Pieprz, Sharaka's director of international affairs.
Fawad Chaudhry, the former information minister under Khan's government, would not confirm Pakistan gave a green light. "Our policy is absolutely no recognition or engagement with Israel until establishment of state of Palestine," said in a text message to NPR.
Is it a trial balloon?
"It's an open secret that [the Pakistani] establishment has very close ties to the Gulf states," says Raza Rumi, director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College in New York, and the editor of the liberal Pakistani outlet Naya Daur. "There must be some debate going on, and this visit was just a testing-the-waters-type visit."
It may seem that a small interfaith group would have little influence on a country's foreign policy. But such trips can serve as a trial balloon.
An interfaith delegation of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs from Bahrain made an unprecedented visit to Jerusalem in late 2017, three years before Bahrain established diplomatic relations with Israel.
The Pakistani American delegation visited Tel Aviv, toured Israel's Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, and were guided by a Palestinian tour guide at the Al Aqsa Mosque, central in Islam.
"It is such a blessing to be here in Masjid Al Aqsa. The best moment of my life," says Pakistani American Rana Seyd, fighting back tears after her visit to the religious site. "It's very true that on a Pakistani passport I couldn't have traveled. But that is why I prayed here, that may Allah please guide each one of us to be friends."
BenKhald, who lives in Karachi and runs a Jewish kosher certification business for food manufacturers exporting their products abroad, hopes his country will end its official boycott of Israel to get help with Pakistan's water crisis. Israel is a parched country that transformed itself into a water technology powerhouse.
"We need that, not after 50 years, no, in the next 15 years, we are requiring that," he says.
A chance encounter with an official from another country with tense relations
The Pakistani American activist who helped organize the visit is Ali, the California-based co-founder of the American Muslim and Multifaith Women's Empowerment Council.
"Whenever I've spoken to politicians, and behind closed doors, they'll say, 'You know, we don't have a problem with Israel.' They also say, 'We don't have a problem with Jews.' But then, when you're a politician, that's it, you use that rhetoric. You use the rhetoric to divide," she says. "We must, as people say, 'We don't want you to use that.'"
Last month, she stood with the delegation in front of the Western Wall when suddenly a visiting dignitary arrived from another country at odds with Pakistan.
Indian Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar was in Jerusalem to sign a water technology agreement with Israel. The activists lined up in front of him, and Ali, who counts her family among Pakistan's founding leadership when the country separated from India in 1947, asked the Indian minister to deliver a message to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
"We pray that India and Pakistan make peace and we share Allah's resources," she said. "Water is important for Pakistanis and important for the Indians. So let's all pray for that."
She proposed India and Pakistan embrace each other, like India has embraced Israel.
The response from the Indian minister was a polite smile.
Diaa Hadid reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.