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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 September 2005, 16:27 GMT 17:27 UK
Pakistan and Israel - new friends?

By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, Karachi

Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri (l) and Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom
Will the public response be as cordial as the high level talks?
In January this year, one of Pakistan's leading newspapers, The News, interviewed Israel's deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

In that interview, Mr Peres called upon the two countries to have "direct, personal contact, publicly, without being ashamed about it".

The very next day, an angry mob stormed the newspaper office in Karachi - smashing several window panes and other fixtures.

The mob, it is said, was not just reacting to the contents of the interview but to the very fact that a Pakistani publication had dared provide a voice to the Israeli government.

Eight months later, the two countries have formally kicked off a policy of diplomatic "engagement" in the first ever publicly acknowledged meeting between senior government figures from both sides.

The sensitivity that surrounds any move towards establishing diplomatic ties with Israel is evident from the choice of the word "engagement" rather than "relations".

President Musharraf was himself quick to tell reporters shortly after the Istanbul meeting that it did not mean a step towards the formal recognition of Israel.

Public relations

But some analysts in Pakistan seem convinced that the road from Istanbul can only lead to formal recognition backed by full diplomatic relations.

"This is the first step towards eventual recognition of Israel," says senior defence analyst Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi.

What better way can there be for Pakistan to prove its moderate credentials by moving towards establishing some kind of ties with Israel?
Hasan Askari Rizvi, defence scholar
Dr Rizvi points to two immediate benefits that Pakistan may be seeking from its change of policy.

"The first has to do with image," he says.

"What better way can there be for Pakistan to prove its moderate credentials by moving towards establishing some kind of ties with Israel?" he asks.

The second and far more important reason, he says, relates to the country's defence policy and weapons requirements.

Pakistan has historically relied on US weaponry for its security needs, ignoring calls from independent experts, to diversify its weapons base.

Dr Rizvi says at the moment any Pakistani requests for fresh weapons systems from the US are fiercely resisted by Indian and Israeli lobbyists.

By moving towards a formal recognition of Israel, Pakistan can thus gain entry into an elite club - currently comprising US, India and Israel - with common security perceptions vis-a-vis the Middle East and South Asia.

'Illusion of change'

Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan scholar at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, inserts an important proviso into this argument.

"What remains to be seen is whether the move is aimed only at garnering further US support or is it actually based on a desire for genuine change," says Mr Haqqani.

He says President Musharraf is known for "creating an illusion of change" without actually working towards it.

Hijacked plane crashing into North Tower of World Trade Center
Some in Pakistan say September 11 attacks were a Jewish conspiracy
Mr Haqqani feels that anti-Semitism is so deeply rooted in Pakistani society that it would take more than a meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries to neutralise it.

In an interview with the LA Times published on 18 August, Pakistan's education minister called Jews "the worst terrorists in the world" while summing up the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Pakistani passport holders still cannot travel to Israel.

And there is no shortage in Pakistan of those who believe that the 11 September attacks on the US were a Jewish conspiracy, as were the London bombings, to discredit Muslims.

Pakistan's top religious leader Qazi Hussain Ahmed has already described the Istanbul initiative as a move "against everything that Pakistan has so far stood for".

Unofficial contacts

It is perhaps this deep rooted suspicion between orthodox Jews and Muslims - a suspicion fuelled by events dating back to the times of the Muslim prophet Mohammed - that has led the Musharraf government to go one step at a time.

Defence analyst AR Siddiqui - who once headed the Pakistani army's public relations department - says that within the military top brass, a recognition of the need to improve ties with Israel has been gaining momentum over the last few years.

Indirect relations between Pakistan's military establishment and Israel dating back to the 1980s are already a documented fact.

But over the last couple of years, President Musharraf has repeatedly attempted to bring these contacts into the public sphere.

In 2003, he stressed the need for better relations with Israel during his visit to Camp David. But his comments were quickly brushed under the carpet when they drew an adverse reaction at home.

Earlier this year, Pakistan's prime minister reportedly met Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Davos.

The meeting was confirmed by Israeli officials and described by the Jerusalem Post as an event that went beyond "just a passing conversation in a hotel corridor".

But the Pakistan foreign office vehemently denied that any such meeting had taken place.

That scenario seems to have changed somewhat with the Istanbul meeting.

Some Pakistani observers argue that President Musharraf has been resolutely trying to move Pakistan's foreign policy away from its current ideological basis to one rooted in economic self interest.

They describe the Istanbul meeting as one more step in this direction.

What remains to be seen now is how successfully Pakistan's foreign office and its affiliated think tanks can sell it to the public.

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