ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan's Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz defended talks held with Israel a day earlier as Muslim clerics denounced the shift in policy in fiery sermons during Friday prayers, but planned street protests fell flat.
The meeting between Foreign Minister Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri and his Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom in Istanbul on Thursday was the first publicly acknowledged high-level contact Pakistan has held with the Jewish state.
"There is no harm in having talks," Aziz told the lower house of the National Assembly, where opposition Islamist legislators walked out in token protest.
"If we have met somebody this does not mean we agree with them. We may be able to change their stand.
A staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, Pakistan stressed it will not recognize Israel until a Palestinian state is established.
The government's decision to open talks was prompted by Israel's removal of settlers from Gaza last month.
Foreign Minister Kasuri told reporters during a stopover in Dubai before returning home that the move would give Pakistan "diplomatic space."
"Frankly (secret) contacts have been going on for decades, but we wanted to send a signal to the Israeli government and people that the assumption that Islamic countries cannot live in peace with the Jewish state is not correct, if Israel were to vacate occupied territory," Kasuri said.
PREACHERS ATTACK MUSHARRAF
Hundreds of Islamic Jihad supporters protested in the northern Gaza Strip against Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's decision to hold talks with Israel, and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's agreement to host them.
"We are angry at Erdogan who sponsored the Pakistani-Zionist talks. We are angry with Musharraf," said Mohammad Al-Hindi, an Islamic Jihad leader who accused Musharraf of seeking to satisfy the United States.
In Pakistani mosques, anger welled up during Friday prayers.
"General Musharraf is an agent of Jews. His agenda is to sell Pakistan and Pakistani Muslims to Jews and the Jews' ally," the cleric told his congregation at Islamabad's Red Mosque.
Hardline Islamists were incensed by Musharraf's decision to join Washington's war on terrorism following al Qaeda's September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, his abandonment of support for the Taliban militia in Afghanistan, and his subsequent search for a peaceful resolution with India over Kashmir.
"We will not allow General Musharraf to disgrace Islam. Every Muslim will resist General Musharraf's plan," the preacher said.
For all the rabble-rousing in more radical mosques, street protests planned by Islamist parties were poorly attended.
Munawar Hassan, secretary general of the Jamaat-e-Islami (Islamic Party), warned Kasuri would be greeted by black flags when he returns home, but in the capital Islamabad, a protest in front of a press club mustered less than 100 supporters.
From his stronghold in Peshawar, the provincial capital of North West Frontier Province, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, a leader of the alliance of six Islamist parties accused Musharraf of compromising over Afghanistan, Kashmir and now Palestine, and pledged to launch a countrywide protest.
But only a few hundred supporters came out on the streets of Peshawar on Friday, albeit chanting with gusto "al jihad, al jihad" and "America's friend is the nation's traitor" and "al jihad, al jihad" in a summons to join a holy war.
Newspapers, however, saw how Pakistan stood to gain by engaging Israel.
"First, it will be a blow to the growing Indo-Israeli nexus," said "The News," referring Israel's sale of advanced weapons to Pakistan's old rival, India.
Secondly, it would "bring credible advantages for Pakistan within the American political system, where the Jewish lobby's clout is unquestionable."
And thirdly, the newspaper said, it would lift some pressure put on Pakistan by the West over management of its nuclear arms