The Washington Diplomat / December 2005
By Larry Luxner
Last month, Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, made world headlines when he threatened to "wipe Israel off the map"— a frightening thought given Tehran's current push to develop nuclear weapons.
Yet there's another trend spreading througout the Islamic world, albeit with fewer headlines and a lot less publicity: Muslim countries large and small are beginning to warm up to the Jewish state.
Following the December 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India, the Israeli government rushed emergency aid to the region. An Israeli cargo plane loaded with relief supplies landed for the first time ever in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country.
When terrorists unleashed a deadly attack on the Indonesian island of Bali, the Israelis were there with offers of assistance, and when a powerful earthquake struck Kashmir on Oct. 8, killing an estimated 79,000 Pakistanis, Israel — until then a sworn enemy of Pakistan — again offered to help.
Within the last few months, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom has had opinion pieces published in Indonesia's largest newspapers and recently flew to Tunisia to attend the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, delivering a speech at the summit's opening session.
During a recent visit to the United States, Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf addressed influential Jewish leaders in New York and took the unprecedented step of meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who not long ago was reviled in every country in the Arab world. Musharraf called Sharon "a man of courage" and urged reconciliation between their two countries.
Likewise, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, leader of the world's largest Muslim nation, said during a trip to Australia that he has "learned very much from Judaism."
In much the same spirit of reconciliation, tiny Bahrain — with 600,000 people the smallest member of the 22-nation Arab League — has announced it is ending its longstanding economic boycott of Israel, which recently opened a trade office in nearby Qatar.
What's happening? Are Arabs and Muslims suddenly falling in love with the Jews?
Jehangir Karamat, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, says his country's sudden interest in Israel is directly related to Sharon's disengagement from the Gaza Strip after a 38-year occupation. It also stems from a widely held belief that the key to better relations with the United States is cultivating ties with what's perceived to be the influential American Jewish lobby.
"We are reaching out to all segments of the American people, especially in the context of trade, tourism and investment," Karamat told the Diplomat in a recent interview. "In that context, we have worked with various Jewish organizations in the United States, and we've had a very enthusiastic response from them. There's a coming together between the Pakistani-American community and the Jewish-American community. I think it was in that spirit that President Musharraf addressed the gathering in New York, where his address was warmly received."
He added: "We have a very good, evolving relationship with the Bush administration, and we work with all segments, and yes, I think the American Jewish population is an influential part of U.S. society, and linkages with them as with other segments of society will help us."
Among other things, a large delegation of Pakistani executives will reportedly visit Tel Aviv soon, with an eye towards discussing potential business opportunities with their Israeli counterparts — namely in the fields of agriculture, biotechnology and telecommunications.
Karamat says there's no reason why Pakistan, with 162 million inhabitants the second-most populous Muslim nation after Indonesia, shouldn't do business with Israel, population 7 million.
"Pakistan has been pushing its economic policy with considerable success. It's had strong growth, developing international trade relations, negotiating free-trade agreements with Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, and attracting investment from the Persian Gulf. It's in that context that Israel can be a part of this entire international arrangement."
Musharraf's controversial initiative toward Israel has encouraged Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai to declare that he, too, would like to pursue closer ties with the Jewish state, though a spokesman for Said Tayeb Jawad, Kabul's ambassador in Washington, declined to elaborate on Karzai's recent declarations.
At the moment, Israel has full diplomatic relations with only three Arab states: Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania. It also has ongoing contacts with other countries including Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as well as a number of Muslim nations in Central Asia like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
David Segal, chief spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, agreed that his country's "bold and historic decision to disengage from Gaza and parts of the West Bank" triggered the current wave of interest in Israel emanating from Jakarta, Kabul, Islamabad and Kuala Lumpur.
"We've always strived and hoped for warmer relations with Muslim countries," Segal told us. "We've worked on this for many years. Israel has no conflict with most of these countries, and there's no reason why friendly and productive relations couldn't be developed further. It's important to be able to talk to one another and discuss problems, and it's of utmost importance to the Middle East as a message of moderation to counterbalance the threat of the extremists."
Those extremists, he said, include Iran's President Ahmadinejad.
"Iranian leaders have made similar statements in the past, but the importance of this was the boldness, the directness and the bluntness — and also the context in which the world is looking at the Iranian nuclear program and its long-range missiles that say 'Death to Israel' on them," he noted.
"The Palestinian Islamic Jihad is fully funded and directed by Iran, and headquartered in Damascus. They've been the organization most active within the Palestinian areas in trying to undermine the process of reconciliation, and they're responsible for all the suicide bombings that took place this year in Israel."