(photo credit: Courtesy)
Full diplomatic relations between Israel and Pakistan will be established in a short period of time, a group of Pakistani expatriates living in the US predicted last week during a visit to Jerusalem.
An eight-member delegation from the American Muslim Peace Initiative came to Israel as guests of the American Jewish Congress's Council for World Jewry, which has been working to improve ties between Israel and the 160 million Muslims of Pakistan.
The two organizations were instrumental in bringing about an historic meeting between the foreign ministers of Israel and Pakistan last year in Istanbul and a handshake at the United Nations General Assembly last September between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and then-prime minister Ariel Sharon.
"We don't have an iota of doubt that there should be relations between Pakistan and Israel and between Israel and the entire Arab world," said Dr. Omar Atiq, a member of the delegation who lives in Arkansas. "The ice has been broken. It's just a matter of time. It's not if - it's when. It's around the corner - despite what is going on in the news."
In a packed three-day schedule organized by AJCongress Israel director Danny Grossman, the group met with several top Israeli leaders, including Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, Foreign Ministry Director-General Aharon Abramovitch, top foreign ministry officials, IDF coordinator of government activities in the territories General Yusef Mishlav and MKs Silvan Shalom, Efraim Sneh and Ghaleb Majadaleh. They also met Saeb Erekat and Sari Nusseibeh on the Palestinian side.
Addressing the group at the Knesset Wednesday, Shalom accused the government of not doing enough to build on his meeting with the Pakistani foreign minister and pursue relations with other Arab and Muslim countries.
AJCongress former president Phil Baum hailed the visit of the Pakistani expatriates to Israel as a breakthrough that he believed would set a new precedent of many more Pakistanis visiting Israel.
Atiq said the trip helped give him an understanding of the issues and the realities on the ground in Israel that he thought he knew, but realized during the visit that he did not know as well as he should have.
"We came here thinking people should just talk to each other to overcome their differences," Atiq said. "We still think the Israelis and Palestinians are closer to each other than they think they are. On a basic level, they all want the same thing: peace and prosperity."
Atiq said it was powerful for the group to see Jews, Christians and Muslims praying so close to each other in Jerusalem. He said it taught him that the news events in Israel are only part of a larger reality.
"Ok, a war has broken out, and I'm sorry that is has, but it's still just part of the reality in Israel," Atiq said. "Both sides agree that there is a problem. It's just a matter of crossing a bridge. The solution isn't as difficult as it looks."
At the conclusion of their visit, the group released a statement condemning violence on both sides and calling upon Hamas to release IDF Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
"We now believe more than ever that the only solution to the humanitarian disaster of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is through immediate and absolute cessation of violence on both sides, especially the killing of innocent civilians by suicide bombings or indiscriminate use of force," the statement said.
"Therefore, we call on both sides to end the vicious cycle of violence now and to initiate talks to achieve their shared goal of peace and prosperity through the implementation of the two state solution. Both Palestinians and Israelis need to establish respect and trust for each other through restraint and confidence, building measures while the leadership works the details of the lasting peace between them. In that vain, we urge our Palestinian brothers to immediately release the abducted Israeli soldier, since such acts are counterproductive."