When Pakistan first explored the possibility of normalising relations with Israel, former Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom assured Islamabad that Israel never participated in any plan with India to take out the country’s nuclear assets.
In an interview at the UN headquarters in New York on September 19, 2005, Shalom also told this correspondent that “never in the last 58 years Israel considered Pakistan an enemy” and had always believed public assurances from Islamabad that “the country’s nuclear programme is not directed against Israel.”
This was the time when the Musharraf government seriously considered options for normalising relations with Israel.
On February 9, 2005, foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri had a breakthrough meeting with Shalom in Turkey and the US media reported that the former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf had initiated the process that led to the meeting.
The Shalom-Kasuri meeting led to a “historic” meeting between Gen Musharraf and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon at the UN building in New York on Sept 14, 2005.
Gen Musharraf, the first Pakistani ruler to publicly meet an Israeli leader, approached Sharon during a photo opportunity for world leaders attending the 60th annual session of the UN General Assembly.
In an interview to the Associated Press on Sept 9, 2005, Musharraf praised the Israeli leader as "courageous" for ordering the withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza. But said he also said that he had no plans to meet Sharon.
However, Dawn reported on Sept 3, 2005, that Musharraf might have a “chance meeting” with Sharon in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
In his AP interview, Musharraf also hinted that Pakistan might establish diplomatic ties with Israel if Israeli leaders agree to create an independent Palestinian state.
The Israeli media, however, reported in 2005 that Pakistan and Israel had maintained informal contacts for more than a decade, which continued after the Musharraf-Sharon meeting as well.
The next public meeting between Pakistani and Israeli leaders happened three years later when Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak and Musharraf bumped into each other on January 23, 2008 in the lobby of the luxurious Hotel Raphael in Paris. Musharraf was leaving for a meeting with French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Barak took advantage of the opportunity, approached the Pakistani leader, introduced himself and said: "We support your people and back you due to your significance in securing world peace” in the fight against terrorists.
Musharraf placed his hand on Barak's shoulder and replied, "Thank you very much. God willing, I hope you will make progress in the peace process."
The two leaders exchanged greetings and parted after handshakes.
After the Musharraf-Sharon meeting, Shalom spoke to Dawn, the first face-to-face interview by an Israeli leader to a Pakistani media outlet.
“There never ever was a plan to take out Pakistan’s nuclear programme,” said Shalom when asked for comments on a 2005 statement by former army chief Mirza Aslam Beg that India and Israel had finalised a plan in 1991 to launch air strikes on the country’s nuclear installations.
“These are conspiracy theories that are floated against Israel from time to time,” he said. “We believed the public assurances issued in Islamabad but never sought a secret assurance because we believed what was being said publicly.”
Shalom said that although Pakistan was a Muslim country with nuclear weapons, it was “not Iran because it is not despotic and is not run by clerics who have vowed to destroy Israel”.
Pakistan, he said, had also never been involved in any plan to harm Israel like Iran, Syria and Libya had been.
The Israeli foreign minister also emphasised that Israel wants to keep its relations with India separate from its relations with Pakistan.
“Our relations with India are not against any country. We never have and never will participate in any plan with India or any other country to harm Pakistan.”
The interview, held at the same hotel where former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh was also staying, gave an insight into the legendary Israeli security.
The body search was so thorough that even bones were felt with a metal detector. Shoes were removed and examined for explosives in a separate machine. Sleeves, collars, pockets and even belts were first checked with metal detectors and then were felt by the security agents escorting the foreign minister.
As Israeli agents did all the security checks, US security agents were present and watched quietly. This correspondent was required to give his social security number, date and place of birth and other details first to an Israeli agent and then to a US State Department official.
A short and slim man, balding gracefully from the middle, Shalom welcomed the interviewer with a warm handshake and signalled to begin the 20-minute interview immediately, but allowed it to continue for an hour as the conversation began.
Excerpts from the interview are as follows:
Q: Was president Pervez Musharraf’s meeting with the Israeli prime minister at the UN General Assembly earlier this week a chance meeting or pre-arranged?
A: It was a chance meeting at a reception. It was not pre-arranged. It was short and formal.
Q: Is another, more substantial meeting between the two leaders planned?
A: We had a breakthrough when I met foreign minister Kasuri in Istanbul on Sept 1. No more meetings planned yet. The two sides will now work to build up their basic relations.
Q: Any specific plan?
A: There will be contacts between professionals of the two ministries (of foreign affairs) to find ways to progress the relationship. But no meetings during the UN General Assembly.
Q: Any outside the UN?
A: Cannot say yet.
Q: Who played the key role in arranging your meeting with Kasuri?
A: The Turkish prime minister. It was important for president Musharraf too to do it in Turkey. Turkey has very good relations with both Israel and Pakistan. So the Turkish prime minister worked very closely with both. Also with the Palestinians.
Q: Did the Saudi king and the Palestinian prime minister also play any role?
A: The Palestinians and the Saudis gave blessings to our contacts with Pakistan. Many countries and leaders were pleasantly surprised to find out about our contacts with Pakistan.
Q: How old are your contacts with Pakistan?
A: The contacts have been going on for a very long time. Direct contacts. Not through other countries. Our people also had been meeting officials of the Pakistani missions at various countries. All these were very low profile contacts. Never at the level of an ambassador. But they did play a role in creating the environment for my meeting with Kasuri.
Q: Did you have Israeli military advisers in Pakistan during the Afghan war?
A: All such reports are part of conspiracy theories about Israel. These are legends with little truth.
Q: Did you ever worry about Pakistan joining Arab states to attack Israel?
A: We did not. Pakistan was never involved with any Arab country’s plan to attack Israel.
Q: President Musharraf says that he cannot recognise Israel until a Palestinian state is created. Any comments?
A: Pakistan and other Muslim countries should realise that in order to help the Palestinians, they need to have relations with Israel. Without having relations with us, they cannot help them.
Q: Will your contacts with Pakistan soften the attitude of other Muslim countries towards Israel?
A: We are making progress. Egypt and Jordan sent their ambassadors back to Israel after four and a half years. Muslim leaders are planning to visit Israel. We have an economic agreement with Turkey. Very good relations with Mauritania.
Q: Which will be the next Muslim country to recognise Israel now?
A: I met the foreign minister of Qatar on Thursday. Before Intifadah, we had a bureau of interests in Qatar. At least 10 countries are engaged with us. Some more than others. I will also meet foreign ministers of some other Muslim countries during this General Assembly.
Q: Will these contacts lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state?
A: It is up to the Palestinians. There has to be a full implementation of the ‘roadmap’. They need to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism first. Gaza is a model. If it works, it will encourage us to move ahead with the rest of the plan, but we cannot do it if they do not end terrorism and violence. What we see in Gaza is not very encouraging, though. There’s chaos. Their border with Israel has become a paradise for smugglers. They do not need to dig tunnels any longer.
Q: Will you agree to share Jerusalem with the Palestinians and allow Palestinian refugees to return?
A: We cannot immediately jump to the final solution. There are very large gaps, a lack of confidence. We have to go step by step.
Q: Albert Einstein once described the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a fight between two rights, what do you say?
A: Until 1967 Israel was not controlling Palestinian territories, so who prevented an independent Palestinian state then? Certainly not us.
Q: Yet what did an ordinary Palestinian, who was living peacefully before this started, do to deserve this suffering?
A: They did not recognise the UN resolution for two countries in 1947. Jordan occupied the West Bank. Egypt occupied Gaza. Pakistan recognised the Jordanian rule over the West Bank. What stopped Jordan or Egypt from creating a Palestinian state?
Q: What future do you see for Israel say in 500 years? Will you be able to live peacefully with your Arab neighbours?
A: We hope there will be peace in the region. If not us, our children and grandchildren will end the conflict. See, what’s happening in Europe after the World War II. Britain and Germany, Germany and France, Germany and Poland, all have friendly relations now. You could not have imagined it then. But they did overcome their differences.
Q: What is the incentive for Arabs and Israelis to come together?
A: The region can evolve as one strong economic bloc with benefits for all.
Q: Former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir once described the Muslim period as the golden period of Jewish history. Why are relations so bad now?
A: It is true that Jews lived more comfortably in Muslim countries than in Christian countries. They were not equal but they lived in excellent conditions, as my family did in Tunisia. In the Christian world, we had holocausts and inquisitions. They tried to force all Jews to convert to Christianity.
Q: So what went wrong? Is it the Palestinian dispute?
A: No, not the Palestinian dispute. In the 1930s and 40s, the world witnessed an upsurge of nationalism. The Arab nationalism also became a strong force in the Middle East. This also affected relations between Arabs and Jews.
Q: So you do not see Islam as the main force against anti-Jewish feelings in the Islamic world?
A: No. Islam not at all is the enemy. I do not think Islam is anti-Jewish. Until the 20th century there was no problem.