In an unprecedented interview in Kabul with a reporter from Tel Aviv daily "Yedi'ot Aharonot," Afghan President Hamid Karzai hinted at a desire to establish formal relations with Israel. While the euphoria that accompanied presumptions of imminent full diplomatic relations was quickly tempered by preconditions, the warming of ties between Afghanistan and Israel sets Kabul's policies in sharp contrast to those of neighboring Iran, where President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad has called for the destruction of the Jewish state.
In the interview, which was conducted on 7 October but published a week later, Karzai welcomed Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and said that once "there is further progress [in the Mideast peace process], and the Palestinians begin to get a state of their own, Afghanistan will be glad to have full relations with Israel." Furthermore, while Karzai ruled out meeting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Afghanistan or in Israel, he said he hoped to meet the Israeli leader "somewhere else...soon." Karzai also revealed the he had met Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres "several times," referring to him as "a dear man, a real warrior for peace."The Media BuzzOne day after the publication of Karzai's interview, Lahore's "Daily Times" quoted a report by Pakistan's ARY news channel asserting that Kabul had decided to recognize Israel, with an official announcement forthcoming "in the next few days." While official Israeli reaction to news of an imminent establishment of formal ties with Afghanistan was muted, "The Jerusalem Post" on 16 October quoted unidentified "senior diplomatic" sources as saying that they were pleased with events but "not surprised."Also on 16 October, the Israeli daily "Ha'aretz" quoted unnamed Israeli political sources as saying such a move by Kabul would represent "another important step on the road to recognition of Israel by the Muslim world."Karzai spokesman Mohammad Karim Rahimi clarified his country's position regarding the issue on 18 October, saying that Afghanistan would not recognize until an independent Palestinian state had been established.Unidentified Israeli sources indicated that they clearly understood the pressure that Kabul was under from the Arab and Muslim world and that no one in official circles had thought it realistic that Kabul would officially recognize Jerusalem immediately. However, "Yedi'ot Aharonot" quoted sources as having acknowledged the existence of a dialogue between the two countries and said the process would be a long one.The Iranian AngleIn contrast to Karzai's seemingly warm words for Israel, Iranian President Ahmadinejad on 26 October called at a conference in Tehran called "A World Without Zionism" for the destruction of the state of Israel. During the conference and without mentioning the Afghan leader by name, IRNA reported, Ahmadinezhad warned countries or leaders who had taken steps to "acknowledge the Zionist regime under pressure or due to lack of sound understanding that they will be confronted with the wrath of the Islamic ummah [community] and will forever be disgraced."The Iranian president called that Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip a "trick" aimed at encouraging Islamic states to recognize Israel.Speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on 28 October, senior Karzai adviser Dadfar Sepanta declined to discuss Ahmadinezhad's comments regarding Israel. But Sepanta said that Afghanistan's position was that "a policy of eliminating nations or states helps neither regional peace nor international stability." Sepanta said he views Israel "as a reality" like all other states. Israel has "the right to live in peace with their neighbors, just as the Islamic Republic of Iran has the right to live without any foreign threat," he added.It would undoubtedly take some time for Afghanistan to recognize Israel, as the peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis remains unfinished business. But the Afghan government's desire to break the ice and its willingness to engage the Israeli media -- and the prospect of possible contacts with Israeli leaders -- have clearly placed it on a drastically different platform than the Iranian government. In light of the increasingly vociferous Iranian condemnation of the presence of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, and with Kabul proclaiming policies so markedly different from Tehran's, Karzai's government might have to brace itself for the "wrath" of its western neighbor in the form of greater interference or even attempts to destabilize Afghanistan.