NEW YORK (JTA) – With control of the world’s only nuclear-armed Muslim state up in the air, many Jewish and Israeli observers are watching the political turmoil in Pakistan with unease.
Pervez Musharraf, who resigned as Pakistan’s president on Monday, may not have been a great friend of the Jewish people, but he was seen as an ally of the West and a relatively moderate leader of a nuclear state with powerful Islamist elements.
He also had some ties to Jewish groups.
In 2005, Musharraf addressed a Jewish gathering in New York, where he said Pakistan would establish ties with Israel after the Palestinians have a state. During that same visit, Musharraf shook hands with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the U.N. General Assembly. Musharraf also is rumored to have exchanged letters of friendship with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
With Musharraf out, it’s not clear whether or not the open door Jewish organizational leaders have had in Islamabad is in danger of slamming shut.
“It’s a big plus for the Jewish people to have an opening to the world’s only nuclear-armed Muslim country,” David Twersky, senior adviser for international affairs at the American Jewish Congress, said of the relationship between American Jewish groups and Musharraf. “I hope the idea of being open to American Jews doesn’t get thrown out with Musharraf.”
AJCongress chairman Jack Rosen, who has shuttled between New York and Islamabad multiple times to meet with Musharraf on issues of Jewish interest, told JTA he’s confident that the new government in Pakistan won’t sever the country’s dialogue with the Jews.
“I know everybody wants to talk about Musharraf the individual, who was at the center of the stage for the past few years, and everyone wonders what happens next,” said Rosen, who is also chairman of the Council for World Jewry, which is affiliated with the AJCongress. “Our reason for having initiated the contact, and his reason, doesn’t change with the new administration.
“For moderate Muslim leaders around the world, which includes Pakistan, they want to engage America, they want to engage the West, they want to have a dialogue with members of other faiths. That doesn’t falter with Musharraf leaving.”
Musharraf’s tenure saw the first high-level diplomatic contacts between Israel and Pakistan. The countries’ foreign ministers met in Istanbul 2005, and after Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in September of that year, Musharraf said it was time for Pakistan to engage with Israel.
Even as Musharraf’s 2005 speech to a Jewish audience in New York was criticized by Jews for being pro-Palestinian, it was criticized in Pakistan for being too accommodating of Israel.
Musharraf’s resignation this week comes after months of political instability in Pakistan. Last fall, the president moved to suspend the country’s constitution and scuttle planned parliamentary elections. Massive protests prompted Musharraf to back off and eventually resign his position as commander of the armed forces.
The assassination of opposition figure Benazir Bhutto last December further fueled calls for Musharraf to resign as president. Some charged him with being complicit in the Bhutto slaying by not providing her with adequate security.
When he announced his resignation Monday, Musharraf said he was doing so to spare the country his impeachment.
The president of Pakistan’s Senate, Muhammad Mian Soomro, becomes the acting president. According to Pakistani law, the next president must be chosen by the National Assembly and four provincial assemblies within 30 days.
The country’s 4-month-old coalition government is led by Asif Ali Zardari, who heads the Pakistan Peoples Party, and Nawaz Sharif, the chairman of the Pakistan Muslim League-N and a former prime minister. Sharif’s term was ended in 1999 by Musharraf’s bloodless coup.
Whoever emerges as the next president, analysts say the new leader is unlikely to wield the same broad-ranging powers as Musharraf.
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, expressed fears that Pakistan could choose someone with an Islamist orientation.
“I’m very worried about it,” he said.
Nevertheless, Hoenlein and other Jewish organizational officials interviewed for this story stressed the ongoing contacts Jews have had with Pakistani governments over the years – long before Musharraf – and expressed confidence that they would persist in the future.
Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations once even hosted a kosher lunch for some Jews at his residence, said Hoenlein, who attended the event.
Even if a pro-Western regime endures in Islamabad, however, it isn’t clear whether the next leader will be able to keep Pakistan’s hard-line Islamists at bay.
Within hours of Musharraf’s resignation on Monday, a suicide bomber in Pakistan’s Northwest province – a stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban – killed 23 people in a hospital emergency room, according to reports.
(Syed Shahid Ali in Islamabad contributed to this report.)