NEW YORK - In a landmark, unprecedented address to American Jewish leaders late on Saturday night, just days after he had shaken hands with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the UN General Assembly, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf urged Israel to show its 'courage,' and the Jewish community to use its influence, to solve the 'Palestinian dispute once and for all.'
He said this required Israel to pull out of the West Bank and agree on a solution for Jerusalem that respected the city's 'international character.'
Resolution of the conflict, which Musharraf asserted lay 'at the heart of terrorism in the Middle East and beyond,' would 'usher in a period of peace and tranquility in the Middle East and perhaps the whole world.' Among other things, it would certainly enable Pakistan to formalize full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, he indicated.
Speaking briefly to The Jerusalem Post shortly before making his address, Musharraf said he had no timetable for such ties. 'We need to sit down and talk more [with the Israelis],' he told the Post, 'and see how to move forward... We ought to be taking more steps.'
While unanimously praising Musharraf for addressing the gathering, which coincided with the formal opening of contacts between Pakistan and Israel and was arranged after two years of preparations, some Israeli and American Jewish participants expressed discomfort with some of his comments, especially his intimation that Israel's presence on land it captured in the 1967 war in the West Bank and Gaza constituted the root cause of Islamic terrorism.
Dan Gillerman, Israel's ambassador to the UN, told the Post that he considered this assertion to be 'very problematic.' Still, he said, at least there was now an opportunity to pursue a dialogue on this and other issues directly with the Pakistanis.
Gillerman added that he wished Musharraf had 'gone further' and agreed to full ties with Israel. Now that direct contacts had been initiated, however, Israel could and would try to 'push him along a little faster.'
The Pakistani leader described the groundbreaking dinner meeting, attended by a large cast of Jewish leaders and dignitaries assembled by the American Jewish Congress, as 'a historic occasion.' Also present were Pakistani ministers, officials, dignitaries and journalists, Americans of Pakistani origin and a smattering of international diplomats.
Musharraf used the event to pledge that Pakistan ultimately intended to cement full diplomatic relations with Israel, and spoke warmly and at length about the need for a return to the centuries of positive interaction between the Islamic and Jewish communities and to end the past six decades' 'aberration' in that record of cooperation and coexistence. He vowed personally to help educate his people about the strong history of warm Jewish- Islamic ties.
At the same time, however, his recipe for healing placed the onus for the situation overwhelmingly on Israel.
He stressed that terrorism 'cannot be condoned for any reason or cause' and that both Israelis and Palestinians 'must shun confrontation and pursue peace and reconciliation.' But he then went on to say that Israel's rightful desire for security would remain 'incomplete, until the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state is assured.'
Israel, he said, 'must come to terms with geopolitical realities and allow justice to prevail for the Palestinians... They want their own independent state and they must get it.'
Specifically, he continued, the welcome Israeli decision to pull out of Gaza should be followed 'soon' by a withdrawal from the West Bank. More Than 1,400 years ago, he said, Caliph Omar annulled the 500-year exile of the Jewish people and invited them to return and build their homes in the Holy City. This kind of 'gesture of reconciliation and realism' was now 'required of Israel.'
Similarly, for the sake of 'durable peace and harmony between Israelis and Palestinians [and] indeed between Israel and the Muslim world,' there would have to be a final settlement on the status of Jerusalem that would 'respect the international character' of the city.
In a short question and answer session after his speech, when asked why he was not prepared to follow the lead of a country like Turkey, which enjoyed full ties with Israel while simultaneously highlighting its support for Palestinian statehood, Musharraf said that '57 years of bitterness... hatred and animosity cannot be undone so fast.'
To try to sprint when barely walking, he said, risked 'derailing the whole process. We have to be a little patient... I need more support in my endeavors to be able to take the Pakistani people along with me. The people of Pakistan are too involved with the Palestinians and the establishment of a Palestinian homeland.'
They had, he said, already 'come a long way' in accepting Israel's right to exist. But as Israel moved toward enabling the establishment of a Palestinian state 'side by side with a secure Israel,' this would 'allow us the flexibility' to fully normalize ties.
Asked whether he felt able to publicly champion Israel's legitimacy in his contacts with the rest of the Muslim world, and to convey the message that Israeli territorial concessions would have to be met with a curtailing by the Palestinians of the demand for a 'right of return' for refugees to Israel, Musharraf gave a vague response. He said all 'the modalities' would now have to be considered, but that he hadn't really given much thought to these kinds of specifics.
One of the most telling sentences in his speech came near the beginning, when he expressed pleasure at speaking 'to so many members of what is probably the most distinguished and influential community in the United States.' Officials traveling with Musharraf privately confirmed that the president regards the support of US Jewry as an immensely valuable factor as he seeks to solidify his ties with the US administration.
One senior Pakistani official also cited Musharraf's recognition of common interests with Israel in the war on terror, a desire for a Pakistani role in peacemaking and a belief in interfaith dialogue as central factors in the warming of ties.
In a conversation with the Post, one of the president's most trusted ministers, Dr. Nasim Ashraf, minister of state and chairman of the National Commission for Human Development, said Pakistan also hoped it might now begin to build the kind of military partnership with Israel enjoyed by India. It would be excellent, Ashraf said, 'if Israel could open up its military relationship' to Pakistan.
Musharraf devoted much of his address to the potential for Judaism, Christianity and Islam to serve as 'a source of hope, tolerance and peace,' rather than being 'pitted against each other.' He bitterly rejected talk of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, and also rejected 'attempts to associate Islam with terrorism.' Islam, he said, was a 'religion of tolerance, compassion and peace' and those who denied this were engaged in 'a hate campaign.'
Nonetheless, he acknowledged that 'most of those involved in terrorist acts, as well as most of those who suffer the consequences of these acts, are Muslims. Obviously there is a deep disturbance and malaise within Islamic societies.'
This, he said, stemmed from 'festering' problems such as those in the Palestinian territories, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Iraq, which had 'given rise to a deep sense of anger, desperation and humiliation in the Arab and Muslim populations.' The consequent terrorism and extremism, he said, had to be addressed separately.
'Terrorism has to [be] met head-on with all the force required to suppress and eradicate it,' he said.
In the case of extremism, on the other hand, 'the battle has to be won in the hearts and minds of the people.' He said that the 'misuse of religion to spread militancy, hatred and violence has to be suppressed.' But, at the same time, political disputes exploited by terrorists 'to justify their criminal actions' had to be resolved. Among those ripe for resolution, he said, were the Palestinian and Kashmir disputes.
He did not have 'an iota of doubt' that the Israeli- Palestinian problem 'lies at the heart of terrorism in the Middle East and beyond.' Peace in the area would revive the historical ties between Judaism and Islam, he insisted, and 'extinguish the anger and frustration that motivates [a] resort to violence and extremism.'