Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and his Pakistani counterpart held the first acknowledged high-level talks between the two countries in a meeting in Turkey, in the first diplomatic spin-off from Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, officials said Thursday.
Shalom hailed the meeting as “historic” and said that following the Gaza withdrawal it is “the time for all of the Muslim and Arab countries to reconsider their relations with Israel.”
The meeting in Istanbul was at the initiative of Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Shalom said he hoped that it would eventually lead to full diplomatic relations with Pakistan.
"I am sure that this meeting will be followed by more meetings in the future,” Shalom said. “We hope that finally it will lead to full diplomatic relations with Pakistan as we would like it with all Muslim and Arab countries.”
'Full diplomatic relations not imminent'
Israel has diplomatic relations with only four Muslim countries - Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Mauritania. Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri said that “Pakistan attaches great importance to Israel ending its occupation of Gaza. Pakistan has therefore decided to engage Israel.”
A Pakistani Foreign Ministry official in Islamabad said full diplomatic relations weren’t imminent adding that the meeting in Turkey would help gauge public reaction in Pakistan.
"They are moving slowly. ... first they want to end the taboo” of discussing relations with Israel, said the official. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to comment to journalists.
The meeting was held at the Fours Seasons Hotel, a former Ottoman prison, not far from Topkapi Palace. Security was extremely tight with Turkish and Israeli security officials searching bags and even disassembling photographers' cameras.
Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim country that has good relations with Israel, was chosen as a neutral venue. Shalom and Kasuri informally met Wednesday night at a dinner in Istanbul, Israeli officials said.
Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in the Indian subcontinent, has been gradually moving toward conciliation with Israel, despite the influence of a powerful Islamic radical party in Pakistan.
‘Israel quietly working to establish ties with Pakistan’
The Pakistani president accepted an invitation to address an interfaith conference this month organized by the Council for World Jewry while he is in New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly session.
Arabic-language television station al-Jazeera has quoted Musharraf as calling Sharon a “great soldier and courageous leader” after announcing his plan to end Israel’s occupation of Gaza. Pakistan says Israel must abandon all other territory it captured in the 1967 Mideast war and clear the way for an independent Palestinian state.
Sporadic articles in the Pakistani press also have appeared in recent years urging a reassessment of Pakistan’s refusal to consider diplomatic relations with Israel.
Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington and a foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Israel would welcome relations with Islamabad, and has been quietly working toward that goal.
“There have been contacts on different levels with Pakistani officials for several years,” Shoval told The Associated Press. “Even I myself had contacts with the Pakistani ambassador during my tenure in Washington and I always heard the willingness and desire to establish relations at the right moment.”
“Israel is of course interested in widening its official diplomatic relations with as many countries as possible and especially Muslim countries,” Shoval said.