WASHINGTON, June 30 (UPI) -- Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf says his country should recognize Israel if the Palestinians and Israelis reach a peace agreement.
In an interview with Pakistani reporters in Washington, he also said Pakistan must resolve the contentious issue of Kashmir with neighboring India, because peace is needed in the region.
Musharraf met Friday with Pakistani reporters following a day of meetings with U.S. President George W. Bush at Camp David, Md.
Musharraf said Pakistan's cooperation with the U.S.-led war on terror, helping in the hunt for al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives, is good for the country.
The opposition in Pakistan has called for Musharraf to step down as leader of the country's military, but the president said he had the country's support and would continue to hold both positions, as president and leader of the armed forces.
Musharraf left Washington with a trade agreement with the United States and a $3 billion aid package, but the political opposition in Pakistan -- chiefly the six-party Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal alliance -- says that's the price he's being paid for concessions on Kashmir, Israel, and Pakistan's Islamic status.
Musharraf, however, denied this.
"If the nation agrees ... we must recognize Israel," he said, making him the first Pakistani leader to ever raise the issue publicly.
Pakistan's recognition of the Jewish state would go a long way toward improving Israel's relations with the rest of the Muslim world.
In the question-and-answer session, Musharraf also defended his position on Kashmir.
"We need peace and harmony in between India and Pakistan," he said. "Peace is good for us; it is good for the region."
Q: Are you going to recognize Israel?
Musharraf: We welcome the peace process between Palestinians and Israel. If this peace process goes ahead, we need to review our Israel policy, in consultation with other Muslim states. We also need to debate this issue at home and develop a national consensus.
In my view ... if the Palestinians themselves undertake discussions and go for friendship with Israel ... then what's the problem with us? What is our enmity with Israel?
We are fighting wars with India but our passport says "valid for all countries of the world except Israel." I think we should review our stance.
It has been a taboo in Pakistan even to publicly name Israel. Why? Discuss it; arrive at a national consensus as to where we stand -- say if all the Arab countries recognize Israel -- in fact, many Muslim countries have already recognized it -- then what's wrong with us? Why can't we debate this issue? We must review our policy in consonance with whatever is transpiring there between the two opponents -- the Palestinians and Israel.
I would say that religious extremists have no right to dictate their views (on Israel) to the rest of Pakistan. Let Pakistanis debate it and if they decide to recognize, by all means, we must recognize Israel. There should be no emotional blackmail and no thrusting of ideas.
Q: Why must Pakistan fight America's war? Why must we fight al-Qaida?
A: Quite clearly, it is in our own interest to do so. Be it al-Qaida or any other entity, I am not concerned with the name. Anyone not in possession of valid documents will be arrested and sent back to the country of his or her origin. Nobody should misuse Pakistan for any purpose. We cannot allow them to carry out attacks, inside or outside Pakistan. If we are not allowed to enter any country without valid documents, why should we allow anyone to enter our country without documents?
Since Sept. 11, 2001, we have apprehended more than 480 al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan. These are neither Afghans nor Pakistanis. They are foreigners. They are not acceptable to their own countries. And we don't need them in our country either.
To some extent, al-Qaida has been eliminated in Pakistan but some may still be there. But as I keep saying, they are on the run. They are hiding. They are going out. So, gradually, I think, we will get rid of them and Pakistan will be a much safer place.
Q: The opposition in Pakistan says that you are ready to make a deal with India on Kashmir. Is it right?
A: We have been able to project the Kashmir issue across the world. We have started an international debate on Kashmir. (But) we need peace and harmony ... between India and Pakistan. Peace is good for us; it is good for the region ...
We have made our input to the peace process and there's an appreciable movement toward peace in the subcontinent.
I am certain the United States too will remain involved in initiating a dialogue between India and Pakistan and in moving forward on the Kashmir issue. We are working on a broad-based, long-term strategy, which will be useful for Pakistan.
Q: Mr. President, what do you say to the allegation that you have made a secret deal with President Bush?
A: There is no such deal. Whatever we are doing, we are doing it in our own national interest, and fortunately our national interest coincides with those of the United States, which is the beauty of our relationship.
We did not come here to bargain. In Pakistan's history, we have never received a package (like the one offered at Camp David).
It is wrong to compare this ($3 billion) package with those for Turkey or Egypt. Whatever we have got is very good.
Yes, I know the opposition says that a deal has been struck and that it will not be acceptable -- they need to ask themselves what's the deal? Who is striking a deal?
It is all a matter of national interests. The bottom line is that we will not compromise on your national interest.
A relationship between two nations is not a merchandise that you have a price tag and there is bargaining, you give us this much, we will do this much for you. No.
Q: Did you reach an understanding on issues like Afghanistan, terrorism, and democracy in Pakistan when you met President Bush?
A: Yes, these issues were discussed but there's no deal as I said before. I am appalled that some people think like that.
Q: You say the United States and Pakistan are partners, friends. But Pakistanis living in this country are treated like criminals. Why?
A: I raised this issue with President Bush and I was told that there's no discrimination against Pakistanis. They get the same treatment as the others do. But we must know that if there's a law, it will be followed. We want to make sure that the Pakistanis are not singled out for discrimination and the U.S. administration has assured me that they are not.
Q: Some reports say that Pakistan has lost more than it has gained by participating in the U.S.-led war on terrorism?
A: Not true. We have been compensated for whatever we lost.
Q: What did you gain from this visit?
A: I would say that signing the trade and investment framework agreement was a major gain. We hope that it will ultimately lead to a free-trade agreement, which will allow us a greater access to U.S. markets. That's what we want because that it will be a more substantial gain. It will raise the level of cooperation in various sectors of economy.
Q: But the opposition says you got nothing, that you were short-changed?
A: I will never be able to satisfy the politicians, because they oppose for the sake of opposition. Initially they said that the economy is not growing. Once we achieved 5.1 percent growth rate, they said what impact does it have on the poor. Now they are saying that my visit did not bring any benefits for Pakistan.
I think they are wrong. We are building a broad-based and long-term relationship with the United States. It will benefit all the sectors like trade, investment and defense. We want continuity and permanence in the U.S.-Pakistan relations.
Q: Some say now that you have Washington's support, you will dissolve the Parliament if the opposition does not stop the ongoing agitation against you. Will you?
A: If you are implying that we discussed Pakistan's internal politics at Camp David, we did not. Besides, I feel the political situation in Pakistan does not call for a drastic action such as dissolving the assemblies or packing up the government. A simple majority is needed for the smooth functioning of the government, which the government already enjoys. A simple majority is also enough for legislation.
The system is operative and the government is being run democratically and, therefore, there's no threat to the system.
However, when a situation arises, we will plan and deal with it accordingly.
Q: There are several corrupt politicians in the government you set up after the October 2002 elections in Pakistan. They include several already convicted by your accountability bureau. There's a saying that a man is known by the company he keeps. How does keeping such politicians in the government reflect on you?
A: Absolute honesty does not exist, at least not in Pakistan. There's much dishonesty and corruption ... much imperfections ... you got to work with the people you have.
The political reality in Pakistan is that the people labeled as corrupt by the media are elected with huge majorities ... they have dozens of members of parliament with them. So you have to make compromises and if the compromise is done in the national interest, it is not wrong.
Q: Will you take off your uniform and serve as a civilian president rather than a military ruler as demanded by the opposition?
A: The opposition's demand is unjustified. The two-third majority in the Punjab assembly has voted for me to keep my uniform on. The majority of the National Assembly has voted for the legislative reforms I made. Now, how can they ask me to take my uniform? In a democracy, it is the majority that takes decisions, not the minority.
The opposition parties have no dispute with my uniform and no concern for democracy or the Constitution. They will not be happy even if I take off my uniform 16 times. They want power.
And as far as the religious parties are concerned, the dispute is no more about my uniform or democracy. It is about the choice between Talibanization or building a prosperous and progressive Pakistan, which is respected by the international community. And I will not allow the Talibanization of Pakistan.