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A diplomatic surprise

Print edition : Oct 07, 2005 T+T-
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Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Mohammad Kasuri, left, with his Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom in Istanbul on September 1.-CHERYL RAVELO/REUTERS

Voices of disapproval emanate from the Muslim world as Pakistan makes high-level contact with Israel.

NEWS of the meeting between Pakistan's Foreign Minister Khursheed Mohammad Kasuri and his Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom in Istanbul has evidently not gone down well in Pakistan and the rest of the Muslim world, Arab countries in particular. For quite some time there have been considerable behind-the-scenes diplomatic dealings between the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Jewish state. However, the meeting between Kasuri and Shalom in the last week of August was the first publicly acknowledged high-level contact between the two states.

Those in the Pakistani establishment who argue for relations with Israel have done so along several lines. To begin with they state that New Delhi's close relations with Tel Aviv has had no adverse impact on India's ties with the Arab world. More important, from the point of view of many in Islamabad's corridors of power, New Delhi's proximity with the Jewish state has also translated into political leverage inside the Washington beltway. The call for a Washington-Tel Aviv-New Delhi axis by the former National Democratic Alliance government in New Delhi and the loud support the idea received from the influential Jewish lobby in the United States, may have been interpreted as a wake-up call for policy-makers in Islamabad.

Further, the fact that Pakistan's "all-weather" friend, China, also has good relations with Israel would, no doubt, have strengthened the hands of those arguing for a change in Pakistan's foreign policy. Egypt and Turkey, whose present political structures are much admired by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, have long-standing diplomatic ties with Israel. Cairo and Ankara also have close political and military links with Washington. Israel also has ties with two other Muslim countries, Jordan and Mauritania. Mauritania, however, witnessed a military coup recently. One of the factors that led to the overthrow of the government was its surprise decision to accord full diplomatic recognition to Israel without consulting the Mauritanian people.. The popular mood in Egypt and Jordan is also against the continuation of diplomatic ties with Israel.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told the National Assembly that the decision to open talks with Israel was prompted by Tel Aviv's decision to withdraw from Gaza Strip. The Opposition, comprising mainly of Islamist parties, staged a noisy walkout in protest against the talks. The leader of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), Qazi Hussain Ahmad, accused Musharraf of "changing policies on Kashmir and Palestine without taking Parliament into confidence". The deputy leader of the Jamat-i-Islami, Liaquat Baloch, alleged that Pakistan was buckling under American pressure. "Today, we are being pressured to recognise Israel, tomorrow we will be forced to accept the Indian claim over Kashmir. The government is stepping into a well-laid trap," Baloch told an international news agency.

There were street protests in many parts of the country against the move to hold talks with the Zionist state. The government continues to insist that it would only recognise the state of Israel after the Palestinians are allowed to establish a viable state of their own. Kasuri, however, told the media in Dubai that Pakistan would only be able to play a meaningful role in the ongoing West Asia peace talks if it became active in the region. "How can we play a diplomatic role if we are not even talking to one of the two parties? Egypt is playing a role because Egypt recognises Israel," said Kasuri.

The Pakistan Foreign Minister claimed that the dialogue process with Israel started after Pakistan received the green signal from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority.

Much of the Arab-Muslim world however, would beg to differ. In Palestine the Deputy Prime Minster, Nabil Shaath, was quick to say that it was premature to offer "diplomatic" gifts to Israel. He pointed out that Israel still occupies the West Bank and Jerusalem. "It is not too good to give Israel gifts before it really implements the peace process, not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank and Jerusalem," said Shaath. He went on to say that the moment to start relations with Israel had not yet arrived. "The right time for this relationship with Israel should be after Israeli withdrawal from all the lands occupied in 1967 and after the solution of the refugees issue," Shaath added. Hamas leader Khaled Mashal said that Pakistan was "stabbing the Palestinian people in the back".

On the Gaza Strip, hundreds of activists of the Islamic Jihad organised protests. One of their leaders, Mohamad al-Hindi, accused Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of sponsoring the Pakistani-Zionist talks. "We are angry with Musharraf," he said. The Turkish government has since issued a denial that it had a role in facilitating the meeting between the Pakistani and Israeli Foreign Ministers.

The Iranian government has reasons to be particularly upset. Iran has been steadfast in its rejection of Israel, which it describes as the "Zionist entity" in all its official communiques. An improvement in relations between Pakistan and Israel would put a further question mark on the ambitious gas pipeline project connecting Iran, Pakistan and India. Alongside the U.S., Israel has been in the forefront of moves to isolate Iran in the international arena on the nuclear issue. Leading Israeli politicians have also been calling for the bombing of Iranian civilian nuclear facilities.

Following the talks between the Israeli and Pakistani Foreign Ministers, Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Ahmad Albar said that Muslim countries should not be in a hurry to "embrace" Israel. He described the Gaza pullout as only a "small step" towards the goal of establishing an independent state for Palestinians. Malaysia is the current chairman of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC).

The Israeli Foreign Minister said that his meeting with Kasuri was a "major breakthrough". He expressed the hope that there would be full diplomatic relations between the two countries. Shalom praised Musharraf for initiating the meeting. He hastened to add that ties with Pakistan would not adversely impact the strong relations Tel Aviv had with New Delhi. The news of the talks, however, seems to have taken officials in New Delhi by surprise. The American State Department also described the development as "positive", noting that it was U.S. government policy to encourage countries around the world that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel to establish them. Musharraf also praised Sharon recently as a "great soldier and courageous leader". This kind of praise for Sharon usually emanates only from the White House.

Musharraf will be addressing an inter-faith conference in New York in the third week of September organised by the Council of World Jewry. The council is one of the most influential Jewish organisations in the U.S.

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