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January 28, 2008

When Pervez Met Ehud

Did they or didn't they? That may sound like a question from a paparazzi magazine, but in diplomatic circles, it could mean life or death. After a chance encounter in the lobby of a Parisian hotel, Pervez Musharraf and Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak reportedly held a second, 20-minute meeting to discuss fears of an Iranian nuclear-weapons program:

Pakistan's president held a rare and secret meeting with Israel's defense minister in a Paris hotel last week, and the Iranian nuclear program figured high on the agenda, Israeli defense officials said Monday.

The two states have no diplomatic ties, and their officials rarely meet. But Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak saw each other by chance at the Hotel Raphael in Paris on Jan. 22, where they both were staying, the officials said. They then held a scheduled 20-minute meeting the following day, the officials said. ...

Barak and Musharraf discussed the possibility that Iran would develop nuclear weapons, the Israeli officials said. Iran and Israel are bitter enemies, and Israel — along with the U.S. and much of the international community — is concerned that Iran's nuclear program is designed to produce weapons. Iran claims it intends to produce energy.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan, which has close political and economic ties with Iran, has repeatedly said Iran has a right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and that the issue of Iran's nuclear plans must be resolved by diplomatic means.

At the meeting, Barak also expressed concern that instability in Pakistan could put the country's nuclear arsenal in the hands of Muslim extremists, but Musharraf assured Barak that Pakistan's nuclear weapons were safe, the officials said.

The Israelis won't confirm the meeting, and for good reason. Musharraf has enough problems at home. If this meeting got confirmed by either party, it would set off a fury in Pakistan, providing the radical Islamists with even more momentum.

If true, it does demonstrate at least one reason that the US has tried to remain supportive of Musharraf. Not many Muslim leaders would agree to meet with Israel at all, especially not a head of state, and even more with a minister of inferior rank. Barak is a former Prime Minister and therefore has a little more standing, but the fact that Musharraf would enter into even informal talks with an Israeli minister shows that he could help normalize the relationship between Israel and the Muslim world -- if Musharraf survives long enough to do so.

That assumes he met with Barak a second time. Like the breathless social reports from slick fan magazines, we'll have to leave this to everyone's imaginations without any other confirmation. And for Musharraf's sake, the deniability should probably remain.


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