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Israel breaks Pak ice

Islamabad, Sept. 1: Pakistan held its first public talks with Israel today and President Pervez Musharraf defended the decision.

“No one should be annoyed,” he said, after foreign ministers Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri and Silvan Shalom met in Istanbul.

Though Pakistan has stopped short of granting “official recognition”, this morning’s engagement holds out the tantalising possibility of wider acceptance for Israel, which to date has been frozen out diplomatically by much of the Muslim and Arab world.

“We should continue reviewing our policy and it should be moulded in line with the environment of the world,” Musharraf said, adding the move had the support of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Only a year older than Israel, Pakistan has been a harsh critic of the Jewish state since its creation in 1948 and has no official ties with it.

Amid rumblings of a backlash at home, Musharraf said there was no change in this position. “We will not talk about recognition of Israel until a Palestinian state is established and then we will think about it,” he said in Quetta.

But Shalom was in no doubt about the “huge breakthrough”, after years of Pakistan bashing Israel and drawing parallels between the plight of Palestinians and Kashmiris.

“Today we took an important step forward,” he said, and hoped the meeting would “finally lead to a full diplomatic relationship”.

As hardline leaders threatened a countrywide protest, Kasuri said the decision to “engage” diplomatically with Israel was recognition of its pullout from Gaza last month.

“It is an ominous and inauspicious meeting,” spat Qazi Hussein Ahmad, chief of the Islamist alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Ammal, a bitter critic of Musharraf. He accused the government of working under the diktat of the US and said he would consult allies on a protest.

The foreign ministers’ meeting came a fortnight before President Musharraf addresses America’s powerful Jewish community ' a first by any Pakistani leader.

Analysts saw Pakistan, the only Muslim nation with nuclear arms, gaining credit in the West from the move. Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based analyst in international relations, said the move could also result in less opposition from pro-Israel lobby groups in Washington to arms sales to Musharraf’s military.

Besides, it would help Pakistan counter the growing ties between India and Tel Aviv. The two countries established relations in 1992.

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