In New York last Saturday night, when he proudly introduced Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf to an audience of American Jewry's great and good, the host and key player behind the meeting, Jack Rosen of the American Jewish Congress, lightly recalled being told time and again by skeptics in months past that the event would never come to pass.
It was, indeed, quite a coup: As an Islamic leader in a room full of Jews, Musharraf professed to being surprised and delighted at the warmth of his welcome. But that was nothing compared to the surprise and delight at those who were doing the welcoming.
Most Israelis and Diaspora Jews know that our Declaration of Independence highlights Israel's desire for normalized relations with its neighbors. If Musharraf really wasn't sure how eagerly his tentative feelers on warmed ties with Jews and Israel would be received, apparently that's another aspect of Israel's narrative that our spokespeople have been unable to effectively articulate or convey.
At the Manhattan hotel where Musharraf was hosted, the two hours before his speech were a heady festival of ice-breaking. Prominent American Jews mingled with leading Americans of Pakistani origin, with a handful of Pakistani and Israeli officials there too, and a press corps that included Indian representation.
Somewhere in the melee, I came across one of Gen. Musharraf's two brothers, a dentist based in Chicago (the other lives in Rome) slight of stature, broad of smile, emphatically non-military in bearing. He told me how delighted he was that his brother was risking this union, and that he himself came to Israel about seven years ago, making a quick trip to Masada among other sites when visiting Jordan for a professional convention. The president, he noted somewhat unnecessarily, had not yet visited the Jewish state.
Another Pakistani official, quite senior and fairly modest rather than claiming any ownership, he told me had "seen the speech" Musharraf was delivering emphasized that the risk was indeed real: The president has twice narrowly avoided assassination at the hands of al-Qaida cells of late, and a pro-Israel shift is unlikely to dissuade further plotters.
Then again, somebody else chimed in at one point, "Musharraf may feel that he has so many enemies, he might as well do what he thinks is best."
Despite repeated requests, Musharraf chose not to give any substantial interviews to Israeli journalists before the event, but one of his ministers, Dr. Nasim Ashraf, the minister of state for human development, was happy to talk. Ashraf was, until three or four years ago, an American-based physician and was tapped by Musharraf to come back home, in part, because of his US ties. He's something of an intermediary to American congressmen and senators, I was later told.
The minister was anxious to assure me both that Pakistan was serious about its new openness to Israel, which would surely move toward full relations as the region moved toward peace, and that Pakistan's nuclear program had "nothing to do with Israel" and was "intended for defense purposes just like Israel's." He also hoped I'd convey Pakistan's desire that Israel open up its military relationship to Islamabad, to begin to balance its military ties to India.
In the event, I did get a snatched conversation with Musharraf himself; he and his wife had shaken hands with Ariel Sharon three days earlier, so speaking with an Israeli journalist was presumably no big deal.
As he sat at the event's top table, I was invited to lean across a velvet-rope security-barrier, with a large American security guard in close attendance, and ask a few questions. The president told me he had no firm timetable for full ties with Israel, that he hadn't fully thought through the process yet, but that he and his government certainly intended to embrace more opportunities for dialogue, sit down some more with Israeli leaders and gradually warm the relationship.
Later, in a question-and-answer session after his speech, he was more explicit, rejecting the notion of immediately following Turkey's path in establishing normalized relations while maintaining excellent ties with the Palestinians, and explaining that to go too quickly now would risk derailing the whole process. "Fifty-seven years of no contact, hatred and animosity cannot be undone so fast," he said. He needed to keep the Pakistani public with him, "and the people of Pakistan are too involved with the Palestinians and the establishment of a Palestinian homeland."
The president's address was lengthy six pages of closely-typed text, delivered at a leisurely pace. And he departed significantly from the printed version only once. The Palestinians "want their own independent state," ran the prepared script. Musharraf read that, then extemporized: "And they must get it."
It was a minor shift that nevertheless emphasized the disquieting aspect of an address whose context was unquestionably historic but whose content has understandably garnered mixed reviews in some Israeli and Jewish quarters.
In essence, Musharraf spoke constructively and sensibly about the need to heal Muslim-Jewish relations, and, asked later about his own role, said immediately that he intended to help educate Muslims about the centuries when relations with Jews were strong and the need to restore positive interaction.
On Israeli-Palestinian ties, by contrast, some of his comments seemed ill- or misinformed, and, asked later whether he would henceforth champion Israel's legitimacy in his contacts with other Muslim opinion-leaders, he was polite but evasive.
Most of the audience was in his pocket from the moment he walked in and, rather bizarrely for an emphatically civilian gathering, saluted him.
But he deepened the appreciation still more with a Spielberg reference: "When I watched the last scene in the famous movie Schindler's List," he recalled, "it concludes with a quotation from the Talmud: 'Killing one innocent person is like the murder of humanity and saving one innocent person is like saving humanity.' These identical words appear in the Holy Koran."
He also appealed to his audience's vanity by telling them, early on, that he felt "privileged to be speaking to so many members of what is probably the most distinguished and influential community in the United States." That comment presumably revealed more than it was intended to about Musharraf's prime motivation for meeting now with Jews and Israelis: he perceived Jewish influence as a path to Washington's heart. Arrayed either side of him at the top table, after all, were the heads of numerous American Jewish organizations, a veritable alphabet soup of movers and shakers all of whom claim privileged whispering rights in that prized administration ear.
He spoke movingly about the "similarities and few divergences" between the faith and culture of Jews and Muslims, and set out a vision of Islam as a "great religion of tolerance, compassion and peace" utterly at odds with the extremist rants and relentless terrorist murders for which self-declared representatives of that faith have become notorious.
It was when he got around to trying to analyze the root causes of Islamic terrorism, and to offer his remedies, that his self-styled "Enlightened Moderation" started to sound a little less, well, enlightened.
He stated flatly that terrorism "threatens to destabilize all modern societies," "is anti-progress," "must be rejected" and "cannot be condoned for any reason or cause." So far, so good.
But at the heart of that terrorism, "in the Middle East and beyond," he promptly asserted, lay the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And if Israel only withdrew from the West Bank, found a compromise on Jerusalem that would reflect the city's international character and meet the terms of relevant UN resolutions and international law, and generally respected Palestinian aspirations, then peace would flourish in Palestine, the historical ties between Islam and Judaism would be revived, and "the anger and frustration that motivates resort to violence and extremism" would be extinguished.
He appealed to Israel to show "courage" and to American Jewry to use its "influence, to put an end to the Palestinian dispute for once and for all," because this, he said explicitly, would "usher in a period of peace and tranquility in the Middle East and perhaps the whole world."
My expectations may have been unfairly high. After all, it was a very big deal that the Muslim leader of a nation of 160 million was addressing a Jewish group and promising that this marked the start of a deepening dialogue with Jews and Israel. But coming from a man who is plainly worldly and astute, and who prefaced his remarks by asserting that "I always speak my mind candidly and I always do so with total sincerity," was a tad more reflection too much to ask?
Might Musharraf not have paused, before positing Israel's pullback to its 1967 borders as the panacea for defeating extremism and the gateway to Muslim-Jewish reconciliation, to internalize the fact that terrorism has repeatedly punctured the best efforts at Middle East peacemaking? Might he not at least have acknowledged, as he listed the requirements for Israel, that it does take two genuinely committed sides to resolve a conflict? Might he not reasonably have recalled that the Arab and Muslim worlds were not notably reconciled, either, to the Israel of 1948-1967, before Israel captured the West Bank and staked its claim to all of Jerusalem, and that his own Pakistani leadership predecessors denied recognition to even that Israel?
Still, the great benefit of direct dialogue, as Israel's savvy ambassador the UN, Dan Gillerman, said afterwards, is that Israeli and Jewish leaders, if Musharraf is as good as his word, will henceforth have the opportunity to raise such issues with him and his colleagues, face to face. They will have the chance to genuinely enlighten his moderation.
Oh, and I did like that "perhaps."