UNITED NATIONS – Israel's foreign minister on Tuesday underlined the Jewish state's gains from its withdrawal from Gaza, disclosing that he met with his counterparts from more than 10 Arab and other Muslim nations this week.
In his address, Shalom said his recent meetings represented "a number unthinkable" for a nation that has long been shunned by many U.N. members over its conflict with the Palestinians.
"The iron wall" that stood between Israel and most Islamic countries is coming down, Shalom said. "Relations are growing at a rate never seen before."
He stressed that the council effort was aimed at allowing Israel to "take its rightful place, as a country with full and equal rights in this institution." The earliest that could happen is 2017, Israeli mission spokeswoman Anat Friedman said.
Israel's standing in the United Nations has improved in the last year, with a seminar to address anti-Semitism and a special General Assembly session to commemorate the 67th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps.
And in June, Israel was elected one of 21 vice presidents for the 60th General Assembly session that began last week — a seemingly small step but a move with symbolic resonance because Israel had long been denied a presence on key U.N. bodies.
Shalom noted most of Israel's contacts with Muslim leaders over the years have been secret, and he urged Arab and other Islamic colleagues to "bring our contacts out into the light of day, so that our peoples may understand our shared desire to work with each other, to bring peace and prosperity to our region."
Shalom said Monday that with Israel's 38-year occupation in Gaza completed, it is up to the Arabs to make the next move in Middle East peace efforts. He said his nation was willing to negotiate with archenemy Syria if it stops supporting militants.
Diplomats for the Quartet grouping — United Nations, United States, European Union and Russia — met Tuesday to assess Israel's withdrawal from Gaza. They said that while the pullout was a good step, they wanted Israel to keep moving forward.
"What happens in the West Bank is very much on our mind," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) said. "For us, the Quartet, it's Gaza first and then the next stage will be the West Bank, not Gaza first and Gaza last."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) added, "Our task now is to build on the momentum of that withdrawal."
Shalom's meetings with Arab leaders have boosted hopes of a new era of cooperation in the Middle East. Shalom has been telling Arab and Islamic countries that opening ties with Israel would be the best way to help the Palestinians.
In a speech Tuesday to the General Assembly, Kuwait expressed hope Israel's Gaza withdrawal would revive peace negotiations, adding that it should be followed by measures by the Israelis toward ending the occupation of all Arab lands.
An Arab peace plan calls on Israel to withdraw from all territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war, the establishment of a Palestinian state and a solution for Palestinian refugees.
Palestinians want Gaza, the West Bank and traditionally Arab east Jerusalem for their future state, while Syria wants the return of the Golan Heights.
Shalom said he was optimistic about the possibility of closer ties with the Arab world that could eventually lead to full diplomatic relations.
He announced that he will visit Tunisia in November. Tunisia broke off formal, low-level ties with Israel after the outbreak of large-scale Israeli-Palestinian violence five years ago, but retains some commercial relations.
Shalom said Arab officials he met with had a "positive attitude" about the future prospects for relations, though he indicated breakthroughs may not be achieved immediately.
"I don't know if we are going to have full diplomatic relations, but we are taking some steps forward with all those countries," he said.