UNITED NATIONS — Meeting their warmest reception here in a generation, most notably from Muslim nations, Israeli leaders responded this week with a mixture of elation at their new standing in the world community and impatience at its limits.
In a whirlwind week of diplomatic breakthroughs, the United Nations General Assembly Hall — not known to Israelis as friendly territory — gave warm applause to a speech by Israel’s prime minister, the once-reviled Ariel Sharon. Days later, the assembly hall was gaveled to order by Israel’s own ambassador to hear a speech by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.
In between, leaders from dozens of nations lined up to meet the two Israelis. Among them were the foreign ministers of a dozen Arab and Muslim nations, including several that had not agreed previously to open contact with Israelis. This group was led by the most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia.
But Israeli leaders expressed thinly veiled irritation that their contacts with most Muslim states remained informal and often semi-secret. There were repeated reminders during the week that their newfound acceptance was largely a response to last month’s withdrawal from Gaza, and that additional warming appeared dependent on further Israeli concessions toward the Palestinians — something Israelis say is not likely in the near future.
“These are optimistic times in the Middle East,” Shalom told the General Assembly in a speech this past Tuesday. “The iron curtain that has defined Israel’s relations with most of the Arab and Muslim world for generations is coming down.”
But not fast enough, he continued. “I call on my Arab and Muslim colleagues to bring our contacts out into the light of day so that our peoples may understand our shared desire to work with each other, to bring peace and prosperity to our region.”
Speaking to reporters a day earlier, Shalom insisted that the Muslim nations could and should move toward full relations at once. He acknowledged that the Gaza withdrawal — which he had opposed — had “made some contribution” to the current thaw. However, he said other factors loomed larger, the first two being the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the death of Yasser Arafat.
Later Shalom declared on Israeli television that Israel had “succeeded in breaking the absolute linkage” between “progress on the Palestinian track and progress on the Arab-Israeli track.”
But there were numerous reminders throughout the week, both public and private, that the linkage was alive and well. The president of Pakistan, the second-largest Muslim nation and the only one with nuclear weapons, made the linkage explicit during an unprecedented speech at a dinner arranged in the president’s honor by the American Jewish Congress. The dinner followed the historic handshake between Pakistan’s leader, Pervez Musharraf, and Sharon at the U.N.
Musharraf said that the diplomatic overture was “in response to the bold step taken by Prime Minister Sharon to withdraw from Gaza,” and that Pakistan had “decided to initiate an official contact with Israel,” beginning two weeks earlier with a meeting between the Israeli and Pakistani foreign ministers. And Musharaff said that additional warming depended on further Israeli-Palestinian progress.
“As the peace process progresses towards the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, we will take further steps toward normalization and cooperation, looking to full diplomatic relations,” he said.
Musharraf’s AJCongress appearance was seen widely in itself as a historic gesture toward improving Muslim-Jewish ties. In his speech, broadcast live on Pakistani and Arab television, he condemned antisemitism and terrorism, acknowledged Israel’s right to live in security, quoted approvingly from the Talmud and praised the humanitarian record of America’s Jewish community.
“This is a courageous and a historic step,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
In response to a question, however, Musharraf insisted the time was “not ripe” for full diplomatic relations. He said that his own population was too “emotionally” involved in support for the Palestinians.
Dan Gillerman, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., sat on the dais between Pakistan’s U.N. and Washington ambassadors. Gillerman said that while Musharraf had made an important gesture by appearing at the dinner there still was a regret: “We are sorry he did not go further on the normalization of diplomatic relations with Israel.”
“Pakistan should be a pioneer on this issue,” Gillerman told the Forward.
Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress-Council for World Jewry, was the event’s main organizer. He warned against drawing hasty conclusions from Musharraf’s reticence on Israel. “There’s more to it than meets the eye,” he said.
Several Pakistani and American Jewish sources said that a low-level Pakistani delegation was scheduled to visit Jerusalem and Ramallah in coming weeks, and that Israel and Pakistan have decided to create a joint diplomatic task force to discuss further steps to be taken. The sources also revealed that there is serious talk of a visit to Israel by a Pakistani Cabinet minister.
In addition to improving Jewish-Muslim and Pakistani-Israeli relations, the aim of Musharraf’s diplomatic initiative is believed to be the neutralization of Israel’s growing links with India, Pakistan’s archenemy, and the smoothing of relations with Washington.
There were many other signs this week of a warming between Israel and the Arab and Muslim world.
Sharon met on Friday with Jordan’s King Abdullah II for the first time in months. Additional meetings included sessions with the foreign ministers of Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco and, for the first time publicly, Qatar and Indonesia.
There were other meetings that were too sensitive to discuss, Shalom said at a press briefing.
Sknja Panegabaen, a spokesman for the Indonesian mission to the U.N., said the Israeli-Indonesian meeting was an exchange of views about the Middle East, but it did not touch upon diplomatic relations despite reports that Israel had asked formally for the establishment of diplomatic missions.
Mark Regev, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, stressed that Israel was willing to move forward with Indonesia. He mentioned a senior ministry official’s visit to Indonesia several months ago in the aftermath of the tsunami.
Currently Israel has full diplomatic relations with Egypt, Jordan, Mauritania, Turkey and several former Soviet republics in Central Asia. It also has lower forms of diplomatic relations, including liaison offices, interest sections and trade offices, in Morocco, Tunisia, Oman and Qatar. Most of those diplomatic links were curtailed after the intifada broke out in 2000, but some were re-established in recent months following the announcement of the Gaza withdrawal. Israeli officials are now hoping to seize the momentum to improve ties with large, non-Arab Muslim states that have no direct conflicts with Israel.
Tunisian native Shalom is scheduled in November to be in his home country, attending the World Summit on the Information Society. Also, Bahrain announced it would end its economic boycott of Israel.
“We’re at a tipping point because of Gaza,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. He added that European foreign ministers visiting the U.N. last week also had conveyed to him their view that the atmosphere had improved for Israel.
But the week’s biggest buzz was prompted by Libyan press reports that leader Muammar Gadhafi was planning to visit Israel and that both sides had agreed to such a trip. Some Libyan news sources said that Gadhafi had expressed his wish to visit Israel to an American delegation, and that the agreement on the visit was reached after a failed attempt to organize a Sharon trip to Libya.
Asked about the report, Regev declined to comment directly. He only offered that whenever an Arab leader visits Israel, it bolsters peace efforts.