Imran Khan’s govt ‘knew about controversial Israel trip’, claims organiser

ISLAMABAD: The revelation that a number of Pakistani expats and a couple of citizens recently travelled to Israel as part of a delegation has sparked a controversy, with former prime minister Imran Khan and his party spinning the incident into their narrative of a foreign conspiracy against the previous government, and alleging that the trip had their successors’ tacit approval.

The issue has been discussed at length in parliament as well as during press conferences and public meetings and portrayed as a political step by the government. The fact that other predominantly Muslim countries, such as the UAE and Turkey, are now also warming up to Tel Aviv, has also played a major role in generating excitement around the visit.

However, two members of the delegation that visited Israel have taken issue with the version of events that is being narrated by the current government and its critics.

The trip’s organiser, Anila Ali, who heads the non-governmental organisation (NGO) American Muslim Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council (AMMWEC), told Dawn’s Anwar Iqbal they had arranged special permission from the PTI government for one of its members, a Pakistani citizen, to travel to Israel. They were also assued, she said, that he would not be victimised for visiting Israel.

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In an interview with Geo.tv, published on Tuesday, Ms Ali claimed that her NGO aims to build interfaith ties with people of different communities in America. “So, it was a natural alliance with Muslims and Jews that we became partners and decided to visit not just Israel but Dubai and Abu Dhabi as well,” she said.

Ms Ali said she was very sad that politicians in Pakistan, especially Dr Mazari would use an interfaith women’s organization as a ploy to distract from her party’s ouster and failures.

“Our trip had nothing to do with Pakistan and everything to do with Muslim Jewish peacemaking,” she said.

Dawn also spoke with Ahmed Quraishi, the PTV-affiliated journalist who had accompanied the delegates to Israel.

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He claimed that the previous PTI government launched the “unexpected” debate on Pakistan-Israel relations. He said the delegates were not there to lobby to establish diplomatic relations between both the countries but the agenda was interfaith harmony, Muslim-Jewish reconciliation and The Abraham Accords.

In a detailed interview with Dawn, Mr Quraishi claimed that he had not been a full-time PTV employee outside of his stint with the state broadcaster in 2004-2008.

He said he was surprised to hear that the government had announced that he had been sacked from PTV. “I am just a freelance journalist who, among other engagements, is paid for hosting a show per episode on PTV.”

He said the government’s announcement meant that it was endorsing PTI’s leadership’s “false claims” about a state employee being sent to Israel. In his opinion, the statement that the government issued through PTV was a political statement, possibly trying to give PTI leadership a concession.

He also claimed that the purpose of his delegation’s visit had “nothing to do with Pakistan”.

Mr Quraishi alleged that the matter was dragged into Pakistani politics and politicised by Shireen Mazari, who used photos of the trip to claim that the Shehbaz Sharif government was conducting covert diplomacy with Tel Aviv.

“Then, the former PM used our visit to strengthen his narrative on an alleged conspiracy to oust his government,” he said, adding that the delegation’s work was “a Middle Eastern story that has no relevance for Pakistani government or politics. The delegation is not a Pakistan-Israel lobbying effort but an effort centered on interfaith harmony, Muslim-Jewish reconciliation, and the second anniversary of Abraham Accords”.

Explaining how he came to be part of the delegation, Mr Quraishi said he had been working as a journalist in Pakistan and the Middle East for around two decades and had accepted the invitation of Anila Ali to join a study tour in partnership with Sharaka, a renowned UAE-based NGO that supports the Abraham Accords.

The Abraham Accords are a series of treaties normalizing diplomatic relations between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, facilitated by the US Administration between August and December 2020.

Mr Quraishi was also of the opinion that Pakistan and Israel have other business to attend to in this vital region, apart from the nature of the relationship between Israel and Palestine.

He argued that the two were the only nuclear-armed nations in “the Middle East” and both had increasingly come to share the same friends — from China to the United States and a long list of states in between.

“With no direct bilateral conflicts, it sure seems like Pakistanis and Israelis will be bumping into each other in many capitals across the region where both enjoy robust ties,” he said.

When asked if Pakistan should establish diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv, Mr Quraishi said that this was a sovereign decision, which Pakistan had the right to make in alignment with national interests. “What is ironic is that the PTI leadership has launched an unexpected debate in Pakistan on Pakistan-Israel relations when it was not on the agenda of anyone,” he said.

He was also of the opinion that many Pakistanis believed Islamabad should have excellent relations with Palestinians and Israelis. “While Palestinians and Israelis are the only ones who can resolve their conflict, Pakistan might be able to contribute to a peaceful settlement, building on the Palestinian recognition of Israel in 1995 and other bilateral Palestinian-Israel arrangements.”

When asked if the Pakistani government in the loop on his travel plans, Mr Quraishi asked whether every Pakistani journalist working with the international media was bound to obtain clearance from the government. “Prior knowledge is possible but I don’t think Pakistani journalists working abroad for international media seek prior permission, nor does the state demand that.”

Asked whether the Palestine issue came up during their discussions, Mr Quraishi said that no meeting with Israelis can escape that.

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