For Israel, a Honeymoon of Sorts with Muslim World After Gaza Move

Suddenly this summer, Israel has seen a certain openness from the Muslim world. The foreign ministers of Israel and Pakistan met in Turkey for the first time in an open meeting. King Abdullah II of Jordan may be on his way for a state visit in Jerusalem, and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt may attend the 10th anniversary memorial for slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Gone are the days when Israel suffered from a total boycott by the Arab and Muslim world.

Is all this the result of the Gaza withdrawal? Not quite: The undercurrents in the Muslim world regarding Israel are much deeper than a mere reaction to one limited, albeit historic, development.

“The Israeli withdrawal made it easier for the Pakistanis to move, but there is no direct connection between these two developments,” Efraim Inbar of Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center for Strategic Studies told JTA. “This is actually yet another expression of the historic reconciliation of the Islamic world with Israel. This is an ongoing process.”

Israel’s diplomatic connections with the Muslim world are wider than they sometimes seem. Israel has full ambassadorial relations with Egypt and Jordan, as well as with Muslim countries such as Turkey, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Senegal, and with partly Muslim countries such as Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

Israel operates a commercial delegation in Qatar and recently opened an office in the sheikdom of Dubai, though Israeli representatives there operate in the guise of foreign businessmen.

Reactions in the Muslim world to a warming of relations between Israel and the Muslim nuclear power of Pakistan, with a population of 160 million, were decidedly mixed. The radical Islamist opposition in Pakistan condemned the move, as did Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

Palestinian reactions of disapproval continued on both the official and the grass-roots levels.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that “any communication with Israel made by friendly countries should be pouring into the interest of the Palestinian rights.” The National Committee for Combating Normalization described the move “as a stab in the back of the Palestinian people.”

But is it really? Yair Hirschfeld of Haifa University, who was involved in the talks that led to the 1993 Oslo Accords, believes that moderate Arabs and Muslims should be content with the Pakistani move, since it legitimizes contacts with Israel and lessens the influence of radical Muslims.

“Abu Mazen needs regional backing for talking to us,” Hirschfeld told JTA, using Abbas’ nom de guerre.

Inbar sees the move as a deeper process motivated more by global strategic motives than by local developments.

“When countries such as Turkey and Nigeria established diplomatic relations with Israel in the early 1990s, it was not so much because of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations but more as a result of the end of the Cold War,” Inbar said.

Likewise, in the present process, the Gaza withdrawal is only one contributing factor.

“With all due respect to the Palestinian issue, it is not at the top of the Pakistani agenda,” Inbar said.

Neither should the move be seen just in the context of Pakistani relations with America. Inbar said negotiations between Israel and Pakistan have been held for several years, and have finally ripened because of a cumulation of factors. They include a Pakistani belief that approaches to Israel will aid ties the United States, Israel’s steadily improving relations with Pakistan’s rival neighbor India, as well as concern for the stability of the Pakistani regime as a result of strong internal Muslim opposition and subversive elements in Iran and Afghanistan.

Will other Muslim giants such as Indonesia and Malaysia follow suit? There are no indications so far that this will happen.

Amikam Nahmani of Bar-Ilan University said that even if Israel were to operate even interest offices in those countries, it would be a real breakthrough in the Muslim world.

Muslim countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, Indonesia and Malaysia have been open for Israeli tourists for several years, even though Israel at present has no formal relations with them. On the economic front, Israel has concluded a giant gas deal with Egypt that makes Egypt the main gas supplier to the Israel Electric Company for the next 15 years.

Israel exported some $180 million in products to the Arab world last year — an increase of 48 percent — while buying goods worth $82 million, an increase of 20 percent.

The weak spot in improved relations with countries such as Pakistan and Morocco is the strong popular opposition there to improved relations with Israel. Turkey, Nahmani noted, is an exception — a country ruled by an Islamic party that for the first time actually fulfilled its mission as a bridge between Israel and the Muslim world.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said he hopes the meeting with his Pakistani counterpart would serve as a positive sign to other Arab and Muslim countries that remain hesitant and wait for someone else to make the first move. But Shalom was wary of mentioning candidates.

“Not very long ago we were very close to signing an agreement on diplomatic relations with Chad,” he said, “but this leaked out prematurely, and obviously did not happen.”

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