Pakistan's foreign minister met openly with his Israeli counterpart Thursday, a diplomatic first that came in response to Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip. Officials hailed it as a milestone in Israel's relations with the Muslim world.
The meeting at a hotel in Istanbul between Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri and Israel's top envoy, Silvan Shalom, was initiated by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, and signaled the government's desire to improve relations with the Jewish state after decades of enmity, Pakistani officials said.
Like most Muslim countries, Pakistan does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, although senior officials from the intelligence services of both countries have maintained regular back-channel contacts since the early 1990s, according to an aide to Musharraf, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A senior Foreign Ministry official said Pakistan had informed Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, of Musharraf's decision to open a dialogue with Israel and that Abbas, in particular, was "very supportive of this idea."
Hard-line Islamic parties in Pakistan that constitute Musharraf's main political opposition condemned the meeting as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause and said they would launch protests against any rapprochement with Israel.
"This is the final nail in the coffin," said Qazi Hussain Ahmed, head of the Jamaat-e-Islami party. "Musharraf has provided vital evidence of his loyalties to the United States and Israel."
Speaking to reporters in Istanbul, Kasuri said Pakistan had no immediate plans to formally recognize Israel, a step he said would come only "following progress toward the solution of the Palestinian problem."
He described the meeting as "a gesture to underscore the importance that we in Pakistan attach to Israel ending its occupation of Gaza," adding, "It is important that Israel is encouraged to continue to pursue the course of peace."
Shalom, the Israeli foreign minister, described the meeting as a "historic first" and called on "all of the Muslim and Arab countries to reconsider their relations with Israel." Musharraf chose Turkey as a venue for the talks because it is one of the few Muslim countries on friendly terms with Israel.
Musharraf is a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, and his overture to Israel is in keeping with his pro-Western foreign policy. Moreover, many Pakistanis, including some in the upper ranks of the army, privately admire Israel both for its military prowess and for its success in forging a modern state based on religious identity, an example they would like to emulate.
"It is wrong to assume that General Musharraf has taken a huge risk," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst. "This is a calculated move because a majority of Pakistanis do not support an extremist religious view of Pakistan's relations with Israel."
Musharraf's aide described Thursday's meeting as part of a broader initiative. The meeting could soon be followed by an official visit to Gaza by a Pakistani delegation, officials said.
"Pakistan believes that by engaging Israel diplomatically, it can help resolve the Middle East crisis," Kasuri said in a telephone interview from Istanbul.