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Israel's ties with Muslim nations on upswing

JERUSALEM—When a devastating earthquake rattled Iran two years ago and killed tens of thousands of people, the Islamic nation welcomed aid offered by every country—even the United States—except Israel.

After another temblor decimated parts of Pakistan earlier this month, the second largest Muslim nation in the world agreed to accept help from the Jewish nation, setting the stage for boxes marked with the Star of David to begin heading east as soon as this week.

In a region where small gestures can mark the start of something much larger, Pakistan's decision to take Israel's aid is a political tremor that could shake up the Middle East landscape.

"I think more and more Muslim countries realize that Israel is no longer a pariah, and they have to grow up and accept the fact that it may be beneficial to have relations with Israel at various levels," said Efraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Israel.

In the weeks since Israel ended 38 years of military rule over the Gaza Strip by forcibly removing thousands of Jewish settlers who had lived amid 1.3 million Palestinians, it has racked up significant political rewards.

First came a long-planned public handshake in Istanbul, Turkey, between the foreign ministers of Israel and Pakistan, marking the first official contacts between the Jewish and Muslim nations. Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom hailed the moment as the beginning of the end for the "iron wall" that's long separated Israel from most of its Arab neighbors.

"Israel has no conflict with the Arab and Muslim world," the Tunisian-born Shalom said in an interview. "Just the opposite is true. We share many common interests and values. ... I always believed that the Arab and Muslim world has a critical role to play in advancing peace and stability."

That worldview seems to be making inroads across the Middle East. While Israel has established informal relations with its neighbors, the Gaza Strip gambit has given Arab and Muslim nations an excuse to acknowledge those ties publicly.

Indonesia's foreign minister met with Shalom at the United Nations, and a prominent newspaper in the world's largest Muslim nation cautiously welcomed the talks by saying that "Israel, unlike what Arabs often said in the past, indeed cannot be `thrown into the sea.'" The Jakarta Post weighed in by suggesting that Indonesia "opening some form of relationship with Israel is a prerequisite" to playing a larger political role in the region. And Shalom himself published a landmark opinion piece in an Indonesian newspaper.

After Shalom met with his Pakistani counterpart, President Pervez Musharraf told the American Jewish Congress that he could envision a day when there were more formal ties between the nations.

"What better signal for peace could there be than opening embassies in Israel by Islamic countries like Pakistan?" he asked.

In Kuwait, a leading newspaper carried an opinion piece that encouraged Arab nations to follow Pakistan's lead.

"Israel is not a bogey, and the notion of a greater Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates is no more than a scarecrow that the Arabs have used to justify their despotism, domestic injustice, and political, financial, and administrative corruption," wrote Yusuf Nasir Al Suwaydan, a Saudi.

The thaw may be reaping benefits for Israel, but it's not without risks for the Arab and Muslim leaders who've been buffeted by criticism in their own countries. Hard-line Pakistani lawmakers walked out of a Parliament meeting to protest the meeting with Israel, a nation that Pakistan doesn't officially recognize.

When an Afghan newspaper recently reported that plans were under way for Afghanistan to officially recognize Israel, President Hamid Karzai's office quickly rebuffed the claim and said it would never do so until there was an independent Palestinian state.

The vehement opposition from the general public could make it difficult for leaders across the Middle East to go much farther in building ties with Israel until more progress is made with the Palestinians, said Mouin Rabbani, a Jordan-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

"At the end of the day, these states and governments in principle don't have any objection to going farther than they have already gone, but are being held back by their public opinion which is opposed to such relations," Rabbani said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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