Prague, 2 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- After meeting in a hotel in the Turkish city of Istanbul, the foreign ministers of Pakistan and Israel shook hands and smiled, publicly acknowledging a new chapter in relations.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri said his country has decided to engage with Israel in recognition of its withdrawal from Gaza.
"Pakistan attaches great importance to Israel ending its occupation of Gaza," Kasuri said. "We see this development as a beginning of the process of [the ending] of Israeli occupation and establishing a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel in peace and security. Pakistan has, therefore, decided to engage with Israel."
Kasuri added, however, that the meeting does not mean that Pakistan recognizes Israel. That stage, he said, will come following further progress toward "the solution of the Palestinian problem." Yesterday, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said this will come only after the creation of a Palestinian state.
Kasuri acknowledged to reporters today during a stopover in Dubai that secret contacts between the two countries have been going on for decades. He said yesterday's meeting was a signal to the Israeli government and people "that the assumption that Islamic countries cannot live in peace with the Jewish state is not correct, if Israel were to vacate occupied territory."
His Israeli counterpart, Silvan Shalom, said he hopes the talks will lead to a "full diplomatic relationship with Pakistan" and will also help other Muslim countries open ties with the Jewish state.
"I think that this is the appropriate time for all the Muslim and Arab countries to reconsider their relations with Israel," Shalom said. "I think that it will be a very positive signal to the Israeli public opinion and to the Palestinian public opinion that there are some fruits from this withdrawal from Gaza."
Alouf Benn is the diplomatic editor of Israel's "Ha'aretz" daily. Speaking to RFE/RL from Tel Aviv, Benn said the meeting is unprecedented and is significant both domestically and internationally.
Foreign Minister Shalom said he hopes the talks will lead to a "full diplomatic relationship with Pakistan."
"It's the first time that the world's second-largest Muslim country is ready to recognize Israel in the open and ready to give Israel some reward for its withdrawal from Gaza," Benn said. "So it has international significance. It's widening Israel's circle of recognition [and its] acceptance within the Muslim and Arab world. But [it] also [has significance] domestically, to show the Israeli public that withdrawal from Gaza comes with a reward."
Kasuri said Pakistan decided to hold talks with Israel after consultations with Palestinian authorities, as well as Saudi King Abdullah.
Hajrah Mumtaz, deputy managing editor of Pakistan's "Friday Times," told RFE/RL that by initiating the talks, Pakistan may be trying to counter growing military ties between India and Israel.
"This is Pakistan's move to build some alliances with Israel, in view of the fact that India's alliance with Israel is growing. This could be a possible move to counter that lobby," Mumtaz said. "And secondly, this could be a move to build relations with the Jewish lobby, which is very strong in the U.S. Congress. Obviously, I'm sure that in some way Pakistan hopes to influence the Israeli-Palestinian issue. How effective that will be -- it is too early to tell at the moment."
Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Shaath said today that it is premature to offer what he called diplomatic "gifts" to Israel. "I hope that this step will not encourage any Arab country to normalize its relations with Israel in this period," he said.
Malaysia's foreign minister also said Muslim countries shouldn't be too quick to embrace Israel following its removal of settlements from Gaza. He described the move as merely a "small step" toward establishing an independent state for the Palestinians.
Malaysia, which currently chairs the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), said it has no immediate plans to establish formal ties with Israel.
Israel currently has diplomatic relations with several Muslim countries, including Jordan, Egypt, Mauritania, and Turkey, which hosted yesterday's meeting.
Alouf Benn of "Ha'aretz" said it depends on the structure and nature of other Muslim countries whether they will decide to follow Pakistan's example and engage with Israel.
"Malaysia has been more reluctant to have ties with Israel than Indonesia or Pakistan, for instance. At the same time, there are some moderate Arab countries that had formal relations with Israel [but] which cooled down throughout the Intifada in the past five years, like Morocco, Tunisia, and Oman," Benn said. "And now there may be a time for them to reopen their offices in Tel Aviv and reopen Israeli offices in their capitals. I know that the [United Arab Emirates] has made a more discreet move of opening an Israeli trade office in Dubai."
Yesterday's meeting has been condemned by hard-line parties in Pakistan, many of whose members walked out of parliament in protest today. The parties also vowed to hold protests against the meeting at mosques across the nation.