updated 9/1/2005 1:04:21 PM ET 2005-09-01T17:04:21

The foreign ministers of Israel and Pakistan, a Muslim country that has long taken a hard line against the Jewish state, met publicly for the first time Thursday, a diplomatic breakthrough that follows Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

The meeting in Istanbul was at the initiative of Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and was expected to be followed by confidence building measures, such as a relaxation of Pakistan’s ban against travel to the Jewish state, an Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

The meeting was held at the Fours Seasons Hotel, a converted Ottoman prison, not far from Topkapi Palace. Security was extremely tight with Turkish and Israeli security officials searching bags and even disassembling photographers’ cameras.

Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim country that has good relations with Israel, was chosen as a neutral venue. Pakistan has no diplomatic relations with Israel.

Pakistan was encouraged by Israel’s evacuation of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, which was completed last week, and set up the meeting, Israeli officials said.

“There is no conflict whatsoever between Israel and Pakistan and no logical reason why the two countries could not have a constructive and positive bilateral relationship,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said in Jerusalem.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and his Pakistani counterpart, Khursheed Kasuri, informally met Wednesday night at a dinner in Istanbul, Israeli officials said.

Gradual move toward conciliation
Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in the Indian subcontinent, has been gradually moving toward conciliation with Israel, despite the influence of a powerful Islamic radical party in Pakistan.

The Pakistani president accepted an invitation to address an interfaith conference this month organized by the Council for World Jewry while he is in New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly.

The Arabic-language television station al-Jazeera has quoted Musharraf as calling Sharon a “great soldier and courageous leader” after announcing his plan to end Israel’s occupation of Gaza. Pakistan says Israel must abandon all other territory it captured in the 1967 Mideast war and clear the way for an independent Palestinian state.

Sporadic articles in the Pakistani press also have appeared in recent years urging a reassessment of Pakistan’s refusal to consider diplomatic relations with Israel.

Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington and a foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Israel would welcome relations with Islamabad and has been quietly working toward that goal.

“There have been contacts on different levels with Pakistani officials for several years,” Shoval told The Associated Press. “Even I myself had contacts with the Pakistani ambassador during my tenure in Washington and I always heard the willingness and desire to establish relations at the right moment,” he said.

“Israel is of course interested in widening its official diplomatic relations with as many countries as possible and especially Muslim countries,” he said.

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