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Israeli prods Arabs on formal ties

Call follows talks with Tunisian aide

UNITED NATIONS -- Israel's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, called on Arab states to open formal relations with his country after talks with his Tunisian counterpart, Abdelwahab Abdallah. It was the latest of several meetings that have boosted hopes of an era of cooperation in the Middle East.

Arab countries, however, showed signs of division over whether and how far to go beyond symbolic gestures to reward Israel for its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, after a 38-year occupation. The Arab League has not set a date for a summit meeting to discuss the Gaza withdrawal or Iraq.

Shalom, who held talks with several Arab countries on the sidelines of a UN summit and ministerial meetings, also said Israel was willing to negotiate with Syria, traditionally a militant adversary, if it stops supporting militants.

Abdallah left the 40-minute meeting after shaking hands with Shalom; the Tunisian foreign minister made no comments.

Israel seeks to capitalize on its withdrawal from Gaza, and Shalom has told Arab and Islamic countries that opening ties with Israel would be the best way to help the Palestinians.

Shalom said he was optimistic about the possibility of closer ties with the Arab world that could lead to full diplomatic relations.

''I think that the time has come after we ended our withdrawal of Gaza [for Arabs] to take the initiative, take a move forward to have better relations with Israel," Shalom told reporters.

Shalom also announced he would visit Tunisia in November.

Tunisia broke off formal, low-level ties with Israel after September 2000, when large-scale Israeli-Palestinian violence broke out in the occupied territories. But some commercial relations remain.

Last week, Shalom met with Qatar's foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jasem bin Jaber al-Thani, who urged Arab countries to make gestures toward Israel after the withdrawal. But attempts to bring together Qatar's ruler, Sheikh Amir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel were not successful at a UN summit gathering last week to mark the 60th anniversary of the world body.

Sharon did meet on the sidelines Friday with Jordan's King Abdullah II, however, whose country has a peace treaty with Israel.

The Israeli leader also shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with the Pakistani leader, Pervez Musharraf, whose country has long taken a hard line against the Jewish state.

Musharraf got a standing ovation when he addressed the American Jewish Congress Saturday night, saying his country could establish full diplomatic ties with Israel if it grants Palestinian statehood. Pakistan and Israel had no formal high-level contact until the foreign ministers of both countries met this month in Turkey.

Shalom said Arab officials had a ''positive attitude" about the prospects for relations, though he indicated breakthroughs may not be achieved immediately.

Asked if his talks with Arab officials could lead to relations, Shalom replied: ''Of course, they're considering it. They believe, too, this is the appropriate time. We're making some progress."

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