It was a remarkable sight: the president of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan sitting on a New York dais alongside leaders of the American Jewish community and Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, eating a kosher dinner beneath a blue-and-white banner reading “Council for World Jewry.” It was all the more notable considering the significant personal risk the appearance must have entailed for Pervez Musharraf, who has been the subject of several recent assassination attempts at the hands of Muslim extremists who are violently anti-Israel and anti-America.
And indeed, there was near-unanimous agreement among Jews and Pakistanis at Saturday night’s event that Musharraf’s mere presence before an audience of Jewish officials represented a potentially historic step in Muslim-Jewish relations.
For his landmark gesture, the Pakistani general received a series of standing ovations.
“I would never have imagined that a Muslim, a president of Pakistan and, more than that, a man in uniform would ever get such a warm reception from the Jewish community,” Musharraf said as he ascended the platform to excited applause.
Beyond the novelty of the appearance, however, Musharraf’s half-hour speech met with disappointment from some Jewish leaders who found his remarks rich in hyperbole but poor in specific proposals.
“If we waited 100 years” to hold this meeting “it would have been even more historic, but what is it we have achieved?” asked Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “In his world, in his culture, in his environment, this is a major step. From our perspective, it isn’t.”
Norman Liss, an attorney and a member of the American Jewish Congress’ executive committee, was less circumspect.
“Zero progress,” he said before the applause had died down, noting that Musharraf said little beyond earlier comments about establishing relations with Israel — providing Israel takes a series of steps and a Palestinian state is established.
Musharraf’s address followed closely on the heels of his brief encounter last week with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the sidelines of the United Nations World Summit and a recent meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries, which do not have full diplomatic ties.
Still, said Jack Rosen, the chairman of the AJCongress — whose Council for World Jewry sponsored the event — given Musharraf’s domestic political constraints, Jews should not have exaggerated what he was able to offer.
“It is not helpful for us to be critical of a Muslim leader who, given his political pressures, comes to speak to us and doesn’t give us everything we want at that moment in time,” Rosen told JTA on Sunday. “We couldn’t have expected that he would have announced last night that he would immediately begin normalizing relations with Israel. It wasn’t a real expectation.”
Challenged by Foxman to show more leadership by moving to formalize Israeli-Pakistani relations right away, Musharraf responded that “57 years of hatred, bitterness, animosity cannot be undone so fast.”
“It is my sincere judgment that this is not the time to do it,” he said. “We need to be very patient. I need some more reasons and rationale. I need some more support” to be able to convince the Pakistani people to go along with the move.
Musharraf spoke about religious similarities between Muslims and Jews and characterized recent hostility between the two groups as an aberration against a background of historical coexistence. He further earned plaudits for insisting that terrorism “cannot be condoned for any cause.”
While he referred to “Schindler’s List” and praised Sharon for the recent Gaza Strip withdrawal, Musharraf upset many in the audience by insisting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a root cause of world terrorism and that Pakistan won’t forge diplomatic ties with Israel until the Palestinians have a state — essentially giving the Palestinians a veto over the entire process, several Jewish leaders noted afterward.
“Palestine has been at the heart of troubles in the Middle East,” he said. “I have no doubt whatsoever that any attempt to shy away or ignore the root causes of terrorism is shutting ones eyes to reality and is a sure recipe for failure.”
That sentiment struck a raw nerve among many Jews in the audience, who lamented that Muslim nations for too long have tried to lay the blame for many of the world’s ills on Israel.
“The root cause of terrorism is the same as the root cause of Nazism: simply, the hatred of Jews through teaching hatred of Jews,” said Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America.
Musharraf also called on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and respect other faiths’ attachment to Jerusalem. He did not express any corresponding demands on the Palestinian side.
“Israel must come to terms with geopolitical reality and let justice prevail for the Palestinians,” Musharraf said. “They want their own independent state, and they must get it.”
Since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan has had something of an image problem in the West.
Daniel Pearl, a Jewish reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was kidnapped and decapitated by terrorists in Pakistan; Osama bin Laden is thought to be in hiding somewhere along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border; a Pakistani nuclear scientist was discovered to have supplied nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea; and Pakistan’s extensive network of religious schools has been accused of spreading a radically violent and anti-Western version of Islam.
Many in the audience thus saw Musharraf’s decision to address a Jewish audience as a public-relations move rather than the reflection of a serious desire for detente.
Like many in the Muslim world, Musharraf views the American Jewish community as key to securing political influence along the Beltway, some said.
Musharraf didn’t do much to dispel this impression.
“I feel privileged to be speaking to so many members of what is probably the most distinguished and influential community in the United States,” he said.
But Mossadaq Chughtai, the director of the Pakistani American Liaison Center, which runs the Congressional Pakistan Caucus, dismissed this line of thinking.
“We have good standing with Congress” and the White House, he said, noting that President Bush has hosted Musharraf at Camp David. “Not as good as AIPAC, but we’re making strides,” Chughtai said, referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Still, many considered the symbolism of the event significant. Unlike Palestinian leaders, who often have made conciliatory statements to foreign leaders in English while urging their constituents to war in Arabic, Musharraf spoke before a full contingent of Pakistani media beaming his words back home, where they are likely to be controversial.
For Dr. Abdul Rehman, an officer of the MMSI mosque in Staten Island, N.Y., Musharraf’s appearance gives the “green light” to Muslims to work toward cooperation and dialogue with
“This gives us the credibility to go out and speak,” he said.
Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s chief rabbis, thought Musharraf was “very sincere” and praised him for not making grand promises that he would not be able to fulfill.
“There’s no question he will have a hard time explaining to his people what he’s doing and trying to bring them along,” Lazar said. “On the other hand, he didn’t give any kind of time frame” for normalizing ties with Israel.
At the least, the event led to immediate inter-religious dialogue in the hallways: Lazar was seen chatting and posing for photos with Imam Ghulam Rasul of the MMSI mosque and invited mosque leaders to visit him if they’re in Moscow.
Other Jewish leaders also made small talk with Pakistanis in attendance, and Pakistani television reporters pulled Israelis and American Jews aside for interviews to be broadcast in Pakistan.
“I think the event was very significant,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “The fact that it took place; the president of Pakistan met with Jewish leaders and it was broadcast to his home country. Was it everything everybody wanted to hear? Probably not.
“I still think it was a very important event and something that hopefully can be built upon.”
JTA Managing Editor Michael Arnold contributed to this report.
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