In response to recent overtures by Pakistani ruler Pervez Musharraf, Israel said this week that it is willing to establish relations with Pakistan, one of the world’s largest Muslim countries.
“Israel is very encouraged with this new announcement of the president of Pakistan,” Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday. “Israel is willing to have diplomatic relations with Pakistan. We think Pakistan is a very important country, is a very important Muslim country and is a very important state within Asia.”
Before and after a recent visit to the United States, Musharraf made remarks that were a clear departure from Pakistan’s historic opposition to ties with Israel, saying that the sensitive issue of Pakistan’s recognition of the Jewish state should be discussed through an open and unemotional debate if the peace process bears fruit.
“We must think about these things and review our attitude,” Musharraf said in an interview with the private Pakistani television channel Geo Television. “More pious than the pope, or more Catholic than the pope or more Palestinian than the Palestinians. Is this attitude correct?” he asked.
Pakistan, an overwhelmingly Muslim nation of 147 million people, has never had ties with Israel. Pakistani citizens are not allowed to travel there. Pakistan is also home to many radical Islamic groups that have sworn to destroy the Jewish state.
A six-party religious alliance called Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, or United Action Forum, made strong gains in elections last October and rules the North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda operatives, possibly including Osama bin Laden, are said to have found refuge.
The parties blasted Musharraf for his declaration, accusing him of bowing to American pressure. They threatened to launch massive street protests.
Musharraf, who came to power in a coup d’etat in 1999, has been treading a fine line between his avowed goal of cracking down on terrorist groups and the necessity of catering to the feelings of his countrymen.
During Musharraf’s visit to Washington, President Bush hailed the Pakistani leader and announced that the United States would provide some $3 billion in aid to Pakistan. News reports said that American officials had asked Musharraf to raise the issue of Israeli-Pakistani relations with his government.
Diplomatic observers say Musharraf’s move comes because Pakistan, a traditional American ally, is worried about the rapprochement between Washington and its archenemy, India. Jerusalem and New Delhi have also grown closer, reaching several military cooperation agreements and trumpeting their common fight against radical Islam in the Palestinian territories and in Kashmir. Shalom, the Israeli minister, told the Knesset that the establishment of diplomatic relations with Pakistan would not have to come at the expense of relations with other countries, in an obvious reference to Israel’s strong ties with India. Given these circumstances, observers say, a friendly gesture toward Jerusalem could be a way for Musharraf to score some points in Washington.
“If Muslim countries, or the people who are fighting among themselves, want peace, then what ails us? What is our dispute? We should think about it,” Musharraf was quoted as saying. “If the peace process is moving forward, should we keep the same attitude toward Israel?”
Musharraf said it was the nation’s responsibility to decide whether Pakistan should recognize Israel and open diplomatic relations.
“They should think it over and media should promote an open debate on this issue without any emotionalism,” he said.