Musharraf's overture

September 25, 2005

By accepting an invitation to address American Jewish leaders, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf enhanced his international status as a moderate Islamic leader on whom the United States can rely. His appearance Sept. 17 at the American Jewish Congress in New York was a twofer: It allowed for a very public overture toward Israel with an audience influential in American politics, and it provided a chance to curry favor with the Bush administration on its peace initiative. Mr. Musharraf's decision to break with Islamabad's decades-long anti-Israel policy also has ramifications for Pakistan's historic nemesis, India, which has a working relationship with the Jewish state. The general's New York trip was a strategic, diplomatic success.

But its impact beyond New York and the Washington Beltway will depend on how far Mr. Musharraf is willing to carry his message of moderation - not the first time the Pakistani leader has provoked that question. His speech was reported on widely in Pakistan, leading to protests from some Islamic hard-liners. He pushed a line of "reform, progress and modernity," all antithetical to the teachings of fundamentalist schools in Pakistan. Mr. Musharraf spoke candidly about extremism and its dangers. But it's imperative that he enforce that standard at home and among his countrymen who have helped train terrorists.

In his speech, Mr. Musharraf pledged full diplomatic relations with Israel at the establishment of a Palestinian state. One was conditioned on the other, but the offer should help nudge Israel further along in the peace process.

Mr. Musharraf's speech followed another first this month, a meeting between the foreign ministers of Pakistan and Israel. Muslim officials from Qatar and Indonesia also have met with Israelis in recent weeks. These are the benefits so far of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Arab leaders could capitalize on these openings by moving swiftly to help police and develop the Gaza Strip. Such involvement would improve the chances of Palestinians achieving statehood. Mr. Sharon, who is battling hard-liners in Israel, has conditioned any further initiatives by Israel on Palestinian leaders controlling the militant groups in Gaza.

During his speech to Jewish leaders, Mr. Musharraf spoke not only about the Palestinians but also about the problems in Kashmir (divided between India and Pakistan) - a clever juxtaposition. Both could be resolved, he said; the implication was that he would welcome U.S. attention to Pakistan's dispute with India over the border region.

The Bush administration has relied greatly on Pakistan in its war on terrorism and paid for its support with generous aid packages, even as Pakistan remains a haven for some jihadists; Mr. Musharraf has talked a good game but too often has been suspected of playing both sides of it to cope with domestic pressures. He's again talking moderation, but must follow through.

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