Skip to main content

Israel continued to reap the diplomatic benefits of its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip yesterday, as Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom held talks with his Tunisian counterpart in the latest indication of a thaw in Islamic-Israeli relations.

Mr. Shalom's meeting in New York with Tunisian Foreign Minister Abdelwahib Abdullah came at the end of a week that saw Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia all make gestures suggesting that the diplomatic frost that set in at the beginning of the Palestinian intifada (uprising) five years ago may be melting in the wake of the Gaza pullout.

Pakistan and Indonesia, two leading non-Arab countries that play leadership roles in the wider Islamic world, also took steps to end Israel's isolation, with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf going the furthest. He shook hands with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at last week's United Nations summit and praised his decision to leave Gaza.

In remarks published yesterday, General Musharraf told The Jerusalem Post that while he wouldn't open full diplomatic ties with Israel until a Palestinian state was established, "we need to sit down and talk more [with the Israelis]and see how to move forward. . . . We ought to be taking more steps."

The UN summit was the scene of much rapprochement between Israel and its neighbours, with Jordan's King Abdullah meeting face-to-face with Mr. Sharon for the first time in months and the Qatari Foreign Minister also holding talks with Mr. Shalom. Qatar urged other Arab states to respond to the Gaza withdrawal by drawing closer ties with Israel.

Bahrain indicated in a letter to U.S. diplomats stationed in the gulf kingdom that it would end its four-decade boycott of trade with Israel, while Saudi Arabia -- hoping to join the World Trade Organization -- suggested it would also end its blanket ban on Israeli goods. One Jordanian newspaper said the flurry of moves meant that an "iron curtain, or what we thought was an iron curtain" had disappeared.

While Arab leaders remained uniform in urging Israel to follow up by withdrawing from the West Bank, which it has occupied since 1967, analysts said the Gaza pullout -- combined with a hefty dose of pressure from the United States -- has forced Arab governments to re-examine their decades-old policies of simply isolating Israel and blaming it for all the region's ills.

"It's very difficult now, after the withdrawal from Gaza, to hold onto the idea of just boycotting Israel and riding the old pan-Arab horse of the past," said Hala Mustafa, editor of Democracy, a respected Cairo-based quarterly magazine. By making nice with Israel, she added, Arab regimes are hoping to score points with Washington and ease the pressure emanating from the White House for them to carry out domestic political reforms.

Only four major Islamic countries -- Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Mauritania -- have full diplomatic ties with Israel. Egypt and Jordan withdrew their ambassadors during the violence of the last intifada, but returned them earlier this year after Mr. Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas agreed to a ceasefire.

But the moves to reach out to Israel have run into predictable opposition. Mr. Musharraf's handshake with Mr. Sharon provoked an angry backlash at home, while some Arab politicians have accused those seeking rapprochement with the Jewish state of abandoning the Palestinian cause.

Former Lebanese prime minister Salim Hoss called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League to "check this sweeping, ominous tide." Palestinian leaders have also warned against normalization of relations with Israel while it still occupies the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Ehud Ya'ari, an Israeli analyst who specializes in the country's relations with the Arab world, said the recent steps meant only that Israel's ties with its neighbours are returning to where they were before the intifada. Real change, he said, would be the opening of more embassies in Tel Aviv, something he thinks the United Arab Emirates is closest to doing.