The Israeli and Pakistani foreign ministers met for talks Thursday in Istanbul, in the first acknowledged high-level contact between the two countries. The meeting is part of what Israeli officials are describing as the positive diplomatic fallout from Israel's withdrawal from Gaza.

The meeting between Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and his Pakistani counterpart, Khurshid Kasuri, is being hailed as a major step forward, as Israel seeks to improve relations with Arab and Muslim nations.

The Israeli foreign minister called the meeting a huge breakthrough with far-reaching implications.

Speaking on Israeli radio from Istanbul, Mr. Shalom said the meeting could pave the way for full diplomatic relations with Pakistan and other Muslim nations. But, he cautioned that progress would have to be gradual to take into account public opposition in Pakistan.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Regev told VOA, there is no reason why relations between Israel and Pakistan should not develop further.

"Israel has no conflict whatsoever with Pakistan," he said. "There is no serious reason why Pakistan and Israel could not have a cooperative, productive, friendly, bilateral relationship."

Israel has received widespread international praise for its withdrawal from Gaza and its dismantling of four Jewish settlements in the northern West Bank. Israeli officials say they hope the action will begin to yield diplomatic benefits.

Pakistan's foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, said the Istanbul meeting was a gesture to underscore the importance of the Gaza withdrawal.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev says there is growing international recognition of just how difficult the pullout was for Israel.

"I would hope that countries that, in the past, have been reluctant to engage with Israel directly will understand that Israel is a partner in a peace process in the Middle East, that Israel will continue to play a constructive role, that we want to see the peace process move forward," he said.

It Is the kind of message Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to take to New York later this month, when he attends the U.N. General Assembly and meets with foreign leaders on the sidelines.

While Mr. Sharon is likely to receive further praise for the withdrawal, he is also likely to hear the process cannot stop there.

In Istanbul, Pakistan's foreign minister made it clear that diplomatic ties very much depend on a resolution of the Palestinian conflict.