NEW YORK, Sept 18: In the first ever address to a Jewish congregation by a Pakistani head of state, President Pervez Musharraf assured America’s powerful Jewish community that he would take steps towards normalization of ties with Israel if the Middle East peace process moved forward.
Linking Pakistan’s recognition of Israel to the establishment of a Palestinian state, the president said: “Peace process progresses towards the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, we will take further steps towards normalization and cooperation, looking to full diplomatic relations.”
In his speech to the American Jewish Congress, which was punctuated by half a dozen standing ovations, Gen Musharraf declared: “Pakistan has no direct conflict or dispute with Israel. We pose no threat to Israel’s security. We trust that Israel poses no threat to Pakistan’s national security.”
He qualified his offer of relations with Israel to the granting of rights to the people of Palestine and said that the Pakistani nation had a deep sense of sympathy for the Palestinian people and their legitimate aspirations for statehood.
Explaining how and why Pakistan decided to have direct talks with the Jewish state, the president said it was Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s “bold step” of withdrawing troops from the Gaza Strip that encouraged him to take that decision.
Gen Musharraf reminded the mainly Jewish audience that President Bush’s “roadmap” for peace in the Middle East clearly spells the need for the establishment of a Palestinian state, which lives peacefully “side by side with Israel”.
Referring to the steps suggested in the roadmap for addressing the grievances of the Palestinian people, the president hoped that Israel would soon also withdraw from the West Bank.
“This will set the stage for the establishment of the independent state in Palestine,” said Gen Musharraf. “By respecting Palestinian aspirations, Israel will attain its legitimate desire for assured security,” he added.
The president said he believed peace in Palestine that did justice to both the Israelis and the Palestinians “will bring to a close the sad chapter in the history of the Middle East”.
A peaceful resolution of the Palestinian dispute, he said, would also revive the historical ties between Islam and Judaism and quoted from the Islamic history to show how Jews lived peacefully in the Muslim world until the mid-20th century.
Conscious of the sensitivities of his Jewish audience to linking violence in the Middle East to the Palestinian issue, the president did not directly say that the two were linked but made it amply obvious that the dispute had bedevilled relations between Muslims and Jews.
Doing justice to the Palestinians, the president said, “will extinguish the anger and frustration that motivates resort to violence and extremism”. He then reminded the Jewish community that such an arrangement would also lead to Israel’s recognition by Muslim states.
“What better signal for peace could there be than the opening of embassies in Israel by Islamic countries like Pakistan,” asked the president, earning a thunderous applause from the audience.
The American Jewish Congress, which was obviously pleased with the presence of the leader of one of the world’s largest Muslim nations at its reception, had invited a galaxy of statesmen, lawmakers, academics and businessmen.
A spokesman told reporters that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Congressman Tom Lantos, US Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca and envoys of several Muslim states were among those who attended the reception.
The president inaugurated the function by breaking the bread, a Jewish tradition of honouring a guest, followed by the recital of a prayer from the Torah.
Later, an Arab Qari recited the Holy Quran, quoting verses that urge Muslims, Jews and Christians to live together in peace and harmony.
JEWISH CONGRESS: Earlier Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress, told the gathering how he and other members of the group had been working quietly since the last three years for establishing relations between Israel and Pakistan.
Tom Lantos, who in the past had been critical of Pakistan, said the Jewish community realizes that the Pakistani leaders had taken “political and personal risks” for attending the Jewish convention. “But you also proved that you are ready to take any risk for the sake of peace,” said Mr Lantos, adding that by reaching out to the Jewish community, President Musharraf had started a process which would lead to peace not just for the Muslims and Jews but for the whole world.
President Musharraf told a Pakistani-American Jew, Mr Kazmir, who wanted to know if he [Mr Kazmir] could return to Pakistan, that he could visit his homeland whenever he wanted, “even now”.
Addressing Pakistan media on Sunday morning, Gen Musharraf said he could not say at what stage of the “roadmap” he would recognize Israel and advised the media to begin a debate on this subject.
“You should act when you see the opportunity and should not regret after it has gone. I believe in action not reacting,” said the president while explaining how he would move ahead with establishment of relations with Israel.
Gen Musharraf said it was too early to start importing goods from Israel. “If we do it today, people may attack the ship bringing the goods”.
The president said that his address to the Jewish community was “certainly a high point of his current visit to the United States”.