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Israel's Gaza Pullout Brings Dividend By: Eli Lake
JewishLedger.com | Monday, October 31, 2005


In the aftermath of Israel's decision to pull its soldiers out of Gaza, relations between the Jewish state and Muslim nations are quietly thawing.

The president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, said he would be interested in pursuing formal relations with Israel after the establishment of a Palestinian state. This was followed by a statement from the government of Pakistan that it would be willing to accept aid from Israel for earthquake relief. Israel is planning on sending approximately 100 tons of water purification kits, blankets, and other relief supplies through the United Nations.

Next month, Israel's Tunisian-born foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, will attend a U.N. summit on information technology in Tunis at the invitation of the government there. Meanwhile, Israeli diplomats are quietly meeting with their counterparts from Indonesia, Morocco, and Tunisia to revive long dormant trade relationships in light of Prime Minister Sharon's decision to evacuate settlers from Gaza and hand over the territory to the Palestinian Authority.

The development could have wide-ranging repercussions for the war on terror as Arab and Muslim governments quietly inch toward recognizing a state that Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists have repeatedly pledged to destroy.

While the gestures of some countries are largely symbolic and do not yet amount to recognition, Israeli diplomats say they are optimistic about their relationship in the region for the first time in years. To date, Egypt and Jordan are the only members of the Arab League to recognize Israel as a state. The state-run press in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran still refer to Israel as the Zionist entity.

Pakistan, a nation believed to have assisted Iran's nuclear program in the 1980s and 1990s, was the first major Muslim country to openly discuss the possibility of normalizing ties with Israel last month when President Musharraf was photographed shaking hands with Prime Minister Sharon. While at the United Nations' annual parley he met with Jewish leaders to discuss the relationship.

"The president in that meeting was clear, he said, 'we have taken a step, we have established a contact,'" the deputy chief of the mission for Pakistan in Washington, Mohammad Sadiq, said. When asked whether Pakistan could one day recognize Israel diplomatically, Mr. Sadiq was optimistic.

"That could happen once there is a Palestinian state and the future of Jerusalem is decided."

Those kinds of words would be almost unthinkable in 2001 after the beginning of the Palestinian intifada, when Muslim public opinion of Israel sunk to new lows and Islamic leaders went out of their way to show solidarity with Yasser Arafat. But Mr. Sadiq said there was not public outrage after the president's photograph with Mr. Sharon. The flurry of diplomatic activity between Israel and some Islamic states is reminiscent of the height of the Oslo negotiations years, when the Jewish state established under the radar embassies, in the guise of trade missions, in Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, and Tunisia. After the Palestinian uprising, only the missions in Mauritania and Qatar stayed.

"We have seen this before. It has gone up and down depending on what happens in the region," a former assistant secretary of state for near east affairs, Edward Walker, said. "In light of what Prime Minister Sharon has done there is more openness to explore a relationship with Israel now. People for a long time reacted to Sharon viscerally. He seems to have managed to dispel that view, at least in part among the elites."

Mr. Walker, who is president of the Middle East Institute, a think tank here funded in part by Arab governments and businessmen, said he was closely watching Qatar, a country that maintained its trade mission in Israel throughout the intifada and is often used as a back channel between Arab states and the Israelis.

But Mr. Walker noted that private money from Saudi Arabia and government funds from Iran were still going to Hamas and other terrorist groups that sought to scuttle any progress Mr. Sharon's government would make with the Palestinian Authority.

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