ISTANBUL, Turkey – The foreign ministers of Israel and Pakistan, a Muslim country that has long taken a hard line against the Jewish state, met publicly for the first time Thursday, a diplomatic breakthrough that follows Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip (search).
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom (search) hailed the meeting as "historic" and said that following the Gaza withdrawal it is "the time for all of the Muslim and Arab countries to reconsider their relations with Israel."
The meeting in Istanbul was at the initiative of Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf (search), and Shalom said he hoped that it would eventually lead to full diplomatic relations with Pakistan.
"I am sure that this meeting will be followed by more meetings in the future," Shalom said. "We hope that finally it will lead to full diplomatic relations with Pakistan as we would like it with all Muslim and Arab countries."
Israel has diplomatic relations with only four Muslim countries — Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Mauritania.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri (search) called the meeting "a gesture to underscore the importance that we in Pakistan attach to Israel ending its occupation of Gaza."
"It is important that Israel is encouraged to continue to pursue the course of peace and vacation of its occupation," he said.
"The meeting today does not mean recognition," Kasuri added. "That stage will come following progress toward the solution of the Palestinian problem."
The meeting was held at the Four Seasons Hotel, a former Ottoman prison. Security was extremely tight; Turkish and Israeli security officials searched bags and even disassembled photographers' cameras.
Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim country that has good relations with Israel, was chosen as a neutral venue. Shalom and Kasuri informally met Wednesday night at a dinner in Istanbul, Israeli officials said.
Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in the Indian subcontinent, has been gradually moving toward conciliation with Israel, despite the influence of a powerful Islamic radical party in Pakistan.
The Pakistani president accepted an invitation to address an interfaith conference this month organized by the Council for World Jewry while he is in New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly.
The Arabic-language television station al-Jazeera (search) has quoted Musharraf as calling Sharon a "great soldier and courageous leader" after announcing his plan to end Israel's occupation of Gaza. Pakistan says Israel must abandon all other territory it captured in the 1967 Mideast war and clear the way for an independent Palestinian state.
Sporadic articles in the Pakistani press also have appeared in recent years urging a reassessment of Pakistan's refusal to consider diplomatic relations with Israel.
Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington and a foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search), said Israel would welcome relations with Islamabad, and has been quietly working toward that goal.
"There have been contacts on different levels with Pakistani officials for several years," Shoval told The Associated Press. "Even I myself had contacts with the Pakistani ambassador during my tenure in Washington and I always heard the willingness and desire to establish relations at the right moment," he said.
"Israel is of course interested in widening its official diplomatic relations with as many countries as possible and especially Muslim countries," he said.