Out of Gaza, Israel courts its neighbors

An Israeli court ruling Thursday that the separation wall is legal may still hamper ties with Arab and Muslim states.

Alongside the surprising alacrity with which Israel left Gaza after 38 years of occupation, some Muslim and Arab nations - most officially at war with the Jewish state - are showing a keenness to view disengagement as a step toward relations with Israel.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who turned Gaza over to the Palestinian Authority (PA) this week, is eager to reap the international benefits of the withdrawal to offset criticism at home, particularly in his own right-wing Likud party.

At the United Nations Wednesday, he shook hands with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf following a first-ever meeting earlier this month of the two countries' foreign ministers in Turkey.

But Israeli hopes of thawing relations with other Middle Eastern and Muslim countries - frozen five years ago when the intifada marked a return to Israeli-Palestinian violence - are likely to be limited by the ambiguous direction of Israeli policy after disengagement.

The uncertainty was underscored Thursday when Israel's High Court of Justice rejected a July 2004 International Court of Justice ruling that the barrier through the occupied West Bank was illegal.

The Israeli court ruled that the country has the authority to build a separation wall in the West Bank, beyond Israel's internationally recognized 1967 borders, for security reasons, signaling that Israel would continue to build the barrier despite Palestinian and international objections.

In the same Israeli ruling, however, a nine-justice panel ordered the state to review the route of the fence and alter it in order to allow Palestinians to reach major West Bank cities. The ruling comes as part of an appeal by five Palestinian villages in the area.

A foreign ministry official says he hopes the international community - and some Muslim states reviewing the potential of diplomatic relations with Israel - will recognize that the ruling on the barrier is evidence that Israel is a "healthy democracy" at work.

"We hope they will see this as a strength, that this is a country with a balance of power between different branches of government, with a respect for the rule of law," says Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry. "The same people who support disengagement have to understand that disengagement couldn't have happened without a fence around Gaza. Anyone who wants to see future Israeli movement in the West Bank, and we all do, means there needs to be a fence."

The PA, however, condemns the fence for cutting through land at the heart of their hoped-for state, and because its placement over the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 borders, might predetermine the outcome of any future negotiations. PA officials have also expressed criticism of other Muslim nations for making overtures to Israel.

But several countries have already taken steps - some tentative and others bold - toward opening ties with Israel, with a mix of motivations afoot.

Only in the past two weeks has it emerged that Pakistan is seeking ties with the Jewish state. Pakistan's move to bring the diplomatic talks into the public sphere comes amid strong encouragement from the Bush administration.

"Israel is [viewed as] the ultimate friend of the US, so if you're a friend of Israel, you're a friend of the US," says Mr. Pedhatzur, a professor of strategic studies at Tel Aviv University.

But perhaps even more pressing for Pakistan is the Israel-Indian friendship that has flourished in recent years, one that includes a military dimension - and is therefore a concern for Pakistan.

Arab countries such as Qatar and Morocco, which had already initiated low-level ties with Israel during the years of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, have again shown interest in relations. Israel's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, was due to meet the Qatari foreign minister Thursday. Also, earlier this week, the Qatari foreign minister called on other Arab nations to make gestures toward Israel.

"I salute this step by Israel," Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor Al Thani said in a speech Wednesday at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the AP reported. "Arab countries must take a step toward Israel through an international meeting or a meeting between Arab states and Israel and the cosponsors of peace, particularly the United States, in an attempt to come up with a clear vision to the period after Gaza," he said.

Also this week, an Iraqi politician visited Israel for the second time. His visit last year cost him his job as the director-general of the Supreme National Commission for the De-Baathification of Iraq. Mithal al-Alusi, speaking at a conference near Tel Aviv on terrorism's global impact, called for Iraqi counterterrorism cooperation with Israel and America.

"We will never be able to win the war against the terrorists if we don't work together and deal with them together," said Mr. al-Alusi, who has been the target of an assassination attempt since his last visit, and lost two sons in attacks in the past year.

The Muslim world remains riven over the issue. On Wednesday, a Palestinian religious group issued a fatwa, or Islamic religious decree, forbidding normalization with Israel, following the issuance of a fatwa earlier this week by Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, the head Egypt's al-Azhar Mosque University, that supported normalization.

Moshe Maoz, an expert on regional Arab states at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says that other countries will only move forward if Israel makes steps to return to the road map to Middle East peace.

"Most Arab leaders cannot afford to make peace with Israel without settling the major issues, including Palestinian statehood and Jerusalem, and our leadership should at least take that into consideration and not just wait for the Palestinians to make a move," says Mr. Maoz. "They should not make it a precondition that they eradicate terrorism. Both sides need to work to give the Palestinians some hope that there will be a full-fledged Palestinian state."

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