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    Pakistani president: We must weigh opening ties with Israel

    By Yossi Melman, Haaretz Correspondent and AP

    Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Sunday said
    that his country should seriously consider
    recognizing Israel and establishing diplomatic
    relations with it.

    Speaking in an interview with the private Geo Television
    station upon his return from a two-week tour of Europe and the United States, Musharraf said: "This is the responsibility of the nation to decide. This should be seriously thought over. The media should have an
    open debate on this ...

    The debate should be serious. There should be no
    emotionalism of the extremists."

    "What is our dispute (with Israel)?" he continued. "We should think. I have been
    saying: 'Should we be more Catholic than the
    pope or more pious than the pope or more
    Palestinian than the Palestinians themselves?'

    Is this the right attitude or should there be
    some change in it? There should be national
    consensus on it."

    Musharraf had made similar comments before
    setting off on his tour, but Israel interpreted
    these as a largely meaningless gesture meant to
    shore up his image in the U.S. Sunday's
    remarks, however, were both far more forceful
    than his previous comments and were made after
    President George Bush had already publicly
    promised him an aid package. As a result, a
    senior Israeli source said, "his intention
    truly appears to be serious, not aimed merely
    at conciliating American public opinion."

    Nevertheless, Israeli officials stressed,
    Musharraf is unlikely to follow through on this
    opening unless he musters significant public
    backing for such a step.

    Musharraf's remarks Sunday were preceded by the
    visit to Israel last week of a Pakistani
    businessman who is considered one of the
    president's close associates. The businessman
    was apparently sent to "test the waters" as to
    whether Israel, which has close ties with
    Pakistan's traditional foe, India, would be
    interested in relations with Pakistan as well.

    Israel currently has no ties of any kind with
    Pakistan, and Pakistani passports even state
    that they are valid for entry into any country
    but Israel. Israeli sources attributed
    Musharraf's apparent change of heart regarding
    ties with Israel to his new strategic alliance
    with the U.S. and the recent thawing of
    relations between India and China. Hitherto,
    China has always backed Pakistan against India,
    but Musharraf fears the new Sino-Indian
    rapprochement could leave him increasingly

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