Pakistani-Israeli Relations: A True Opening, or Merely a Trial Balloon?

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Announcements from Islamabad and Tel Aviv on Sept. 1 alerted the world to the meeting in Istanbul that day between their foreign ministers, Khurshid Qasuri and Silvan Shalom, respectively, the first formal encounter between the two countries. Pakistan insisted that the meeting was the result of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and that it would not officially recognize the Jewish state until a sovereign state of Palestine is established. In January of this year, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Perez was quoted in the Pakistani press as saying that Israel and Pakistan should have "direct, personal contacts publicly without being ashamed about it." The report caused an adverse reaction in certain Pakistani circles. President Pervez Musharraf earlier had asked for an open debate on the subject, but the issue had died down, and nothing more was heard about it until the September announcement.

According to an Associated Press report, former Israeli Ambassador to Washington Silvan Shalom said that "There have been contacts on different levels with Pakistani officials for several years." Moving right along, President Musharraf, in New York for the opening of the UN. General Assembly, shook hands with Ariel Sharon at a Sept. 15 reception and, two days later, addressed a dinner hosted by the American Jewish Congress. There, after receiving a standing ovation upon his arrival, he told his audience, "I am convinced that peace in Palestine will revive the historical ties between Islam and Judaism."

Although there may be some truth to the assertion, Islamabad constantly and emphatically denies that its talks with Israel were the result of U.S. pressure. However, Pakistan has been moving in this direction for some time, particularly since India established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992 and the two non-Muslim allies subsequently have entered into several trade and defense agreements. Another factor pushing Pakistan toward Israel is Washington's India-Jewish lobby, which Islamabad may seek to dilute-or duplicate.

While Pakistan's religious groups remain adamantly opposed to any recognition of Israel, most Pakistanis are aware that not a single Muslim country-Arab or otherwise-has ever publicly supported Pakistan on the Kashmir dispute. As a matter of fact, the late Yasser Arafat always enjoyed cozier relations with India than with Pakistan. Nevertheless, Pakistan is reported soon to be sending a large delegation of politicians, civil servants and community leaders to the Palestinian Authority. Their entry, of course, will require facilitation by Israel, which controls all entry points to the Palestinian Authority.

Despite all these developments and speculations, however, Pakistani-Israeli ties are not around the corner. Washington can help Musharraf by applying pressure on India to resolve the Kashmir dispute. The absence of such perceived US. evenhandedness can only provide fodder to antiMusharraf forces, both civilian and military, at home. Musharraf will not rush to embrace Israel. He remembers the fate of Egypt's Anwar Sadat.

For Israel, the establishment of relations with Islamabad will be a major asset. Pakistan, the only known nuclear power in the Muslim world, has been able to keep a huge country like India at bay for over half a century. It commands a special place in the Islamic bloc, and enjoys the friendship of both the U.S. and China. Israel has nothing to lose by opening up relations with Pakistan-far Tel Aviv, if s a win-win game.

Upon arriving in New York on Sept. 12, President Musharraf, in a meeting with the press (as reported in the following day's Washington Post), lashed out at every questioning of his position on various topics, including his continued holding of the offices of commander-in-chief and presidency. He fully supported Iran's right to engage in nuclear research for peaceful purposes. On North Korea's denial that it possessed nuclear weapons technology, he said: "I think they do have an enrichment program. …