Israel hopes talks with Pakistan are first sign of thaw with Islamic world

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The Independent Online

The Israeli Foreign Minister, Sylvan Shalom, held what he called an "historic" meeting in Istanbul with his Pakistani counterpart, Khursheed Kasuri. Mr Kasuri said Pakistan had decided "to engage Israel" - which it does not formally recognise - because of the Gaza withdrawal.

In Quetta, the Pakistani President, Pervez Musharraf, stressed that Pakistan had no plans to recognise Israel before the establishment of a Palestinian state and said the meeting was "indirect contact".

But Mr Shalom went out of his way to praise General Musharraf for initiating the meeting, which Israeli officials said Turkey had helped to bring about, and said he saw it as a "major breakthrough" that he hoped would lead to eventual diplomatic recognition.

The meeting comes as the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, expects to capitalise on international support for disengagement by holding a series of others with various heads of government - including, according to officials, some that do not recognise Israel.

Israeli officials said that the pace of contacts between the two countries would partly be determined by the reaction inside Pakistan. For the only Islamic state with nuclear weapons, to hold open talks with Israel is a seismic change in the Islamic world.

Much of Pakistani society is passionately anti- Israeli. But two years ago, General Musharraf called for a public debate on whether Pakistan should recognise Israel. He recently agreed to become the first Muslim leader to address the American Jewish Congress in New York, which is scheduled later this month.

General Musharraf reportedly phoned the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, to warn him of the talks with Israel. Palestinian authorities were critical of the move. "Pakistan is free to do whatever it wants ... but I hope that this step will not encourage any Arab country to normalise its relations with Israel in this period," the Information Minister, Nabil Shaath, said.

The talks with Israel are certain to displease the Islamist parties with whom General Musharraf has an informal alliance in parliament.

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