Musharraf Under Fire at Home for Outreach Toward Israel

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - Opposition parties in Pakistan planned protests Friday in response to their government's decision to hold the country's first acknowledged face-to-face encounter with a representative of Israel. Such a move eventually could lead to the establishment of diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

Angered by Thursday's meeting in Istanbul between Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri and his Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom, the y slammed President Pervez Musharraf's government for not discussing "a very sensitive issue" with parliament beforehand.

The criticism comes from two opposition groups, the Islamist Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) coalition and the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD), which campaigns for a return to civilian rule and includes the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, ousted by Musharraf in a 1999.

"Parliament has not been taken into confidence in the matter, and this is a very inappropriate approach to a very sensitive issue," said ARD chairman Raja Zafarul Haq.

MMA president Qazi Hussain Ahmed said making overtures toward Israel was "against Pakistan's ideology."

"Our foreign policy over Israel's forceful occupation of Muslim holy places in Palestine should be clear," he said. "Muslim countries that have recognized Israel have violated Islamic principles."

Qazi called for protests on Friday against "Islamabad's collaboration with [the] Zionist conspiracy," saying the entire nation was "enraged."

He charged that the "criminal decision" to reach out to Israel was taken at Washington's "behest."

Pakistan has been hostile towards Israel since the two nations were established in the years following World War II, although their have been quiet contacts over the decades.

Like most Islamic states, Pakistan does not recognize Israel and frequently attacks it in international forums over the Palestinian issue and Israel's control over Jerusalem.

Israel's capital is the location of remains of the ancient Jewish Temple, Judaism's holiest site. But it is also home to a mosque which Muslims revere as their religion's third-holiest shrine, after Mecca and Medina.

Only three Arab countries, Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania, have diplomatic relations with Israel. Non-Arab majority Muslim states with ties are Turkey, Senegal, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The meeting in Turkey is viewed in Israel as a very early first step on a long road towards normalization of ties with Islamabad.

Kasuri said Pakistan had taken the step to "engage" Israel because of its recent withdrawal of Jewish residents from the Gaza Strip.

Speaking in Pakistan, Musharraf said his government had no plans to recognize Israel before a Palestinian state was established.

But he called more than a year ago for a debate in Pakistan over the issue of ties with Israel. Musharraf has also agreed to address a top American Jewish gathering in New York later this month.

In a statement after the Istanbul meeting, Shalom paid tribute to Musharraf, whom he said was promoting peace and moderation.

Contacts like the meeting also "help strengthen the moderates on the Palestinian side - those who recognize that dialogue and acceptance must always be preferred to hatred, terror and extremism," he said.

The Palestine Liberation Organization and the self-rule Palestinian Authority (P.A.) have long urged Arab and Muslim states to isolate Israel diplomatically.

Although Musharraf said PA head Mahmoud Abbas had given the meeting his approval, P.A. Information Minister Nabil Shaath said in response to the Pakistani initiative: "I hope that this step will not encourage any Arab country to normalize its relations with Israel in this period."

Along with more than 170 other heads of states, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will be in New York this month for the U.N. world summit. Israel media are speculating that he may meet with Musharraf while both are there.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the Istanbul meeting a positive development.

He said the U.S. has encouraged countries around the world that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel to establish them "and to begin building relationships of trust based on mutual respect and mutual respect for sovereignty and transparency."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow