Sun, Sep 04, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Pakistan-Israel talks fail to generate large protests


Pakistan's initiation of high-level talks with Israel prompted fury from Islamic hardliners who stormed out of parliament on Friday and called protests in major cities across the country.

But despite fiery rhetoric, the rallies held after Friday prayers were poorly attended, and newspaper commentators gave the landmark meeting between Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and his Pakistani counterpart Khursheed Kasuri a cautious welcome.

Thursday's meeting, held in Turkey, was the first-ever high-level contact between the two countries -- a direct response to Israel's recent removal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.

However, Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Naeem Khan said there are no plans for Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York later this month -- a possibility which Shalom said he had discussed with Kasuri.

News of the meeting in Turkey surprised many people here, and hardline Islamic clerics from an influential, anti-US opposition bloc in Pakistan's parliament responded quickly with a call for protests in major cities across the country.

The rallies fizzled. At the largest, about 300 supporters of an opposition coalition of six Islamic parties, Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), gathered in the northwestern city of Peshawar. Smaller protests were staged by the coalition in Quetta and Karachi. At a rally in Rawalpindi, near the capital, only about one dozen people showed up.

MMA's chief, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, sharply criticized Musharraf, rejecting his government's insistence that Thursday's meeting does not signal imminent diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

"The meeting between Kasuri and Israeli foreign minister is a first toward recognition of Israel," Ahmed told the rally in Peshawar. "Musharraf wants to sell the blood of Palestinians and we will not allow him to do it."

Also Friday, lawmakers from MMA staged a walkout of the lower house of the parliament, accusing the government of not consulting lawmakers before holding the talks.

Hoping to cool tempers, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said the decision to hold talks with Israel was based on a request from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He said Abbas wanted them to play a role in helping resolve the Middle East crisis.

"Pakistan has not recognized Israel," Aziz said, adding that "any such decision would be taken in supreme national interests after due consultation of the parliament."

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