News Analysis: Palestinians joyful that Pakistan has nuclear capability

JERUSALEM — Many Palestinians here have greeted the news of Pakistan's nuclear tests with the same macabre, joyful welcome that they gave Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles seven years ago.

"The fact that Pakistan possesses nuclear arms is an asset for the Arab and Muslim nations," Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin declared proudly over the weekend.

Yassin, the Hamas leader whom Israel released last fall in exchange for the Mossad agents involved in a botched assassination attempt in Jordan, was the first Arab public figure to welcome Pakistan's nuclear adventure.

Other Arab leaders were more reserved in their reactions, expressing diplomatic regret over the nuclear race between Pakistan and India. Indeed, the Organization of the Islamic Conference said in a statement that India and Pakistan should be encouraged to sign a non-aggression pact to prevent regional instability.

But the generally muted reaction did not soothe Israel's fears that Muslim countries, particularly Iran, could soon have access to a nuclear bomb.

The Iranian reaction to the news was much more threatening than the Palestinian one. In fact, the first foreign statesman to visit Pakistan after last week's tests was Kamal Kharrazi, Iran's foreign minister. Kharrazi rushed to use the opportunity to speak on behalf of the world's roughly 1 billion Muslims.

"The Muslims now feel greater security," he told journalists in Islamabad, "because Pakistan's nuclear capability could be a deterrent against the nuclear capability of Israel."

Despite the more moderate reactions of most Arab states, the words of Yassin and Kharrazi were not unique. Their reactions reflected the feelings of millions of proud Muslims throughout the Middle East, including many who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

To many observers, there was a direct link between the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the warm reception the Palestinians gave the first "Islamic bomb." Arab countries in general, and the Palestinians in particular, have often attributed what they call Israeli inflexibility in diplomatic negotiations to Israel's nuclear superiority.

Although Israel has never admitted to possessing nuclear weapons, its nuclear capabilities are well-known.

Whenever the issue of Israeli nuclear arms is raised, the charge goes, the United States is quiet. But when India and Pakistan came out of the nuclear closet, the Clinton administration rushed to impose sanctions.

This leitmotif was played out in the Arab press this week, as articles charged that Israel would soften its negotiating position only if it were threatened by Muslim nuclear power.

The eastern Jerusalem newspaper al-Kuds published a cartoon with the Muslim half-crescent hanging like a protective shield over the nuclear mushroom.

It took little time for the "Islamic bomb" to become an element in the Middle East conflict. Pakistan charged that Israeli F-16 fighter jets landed in India en route to attack nuclear sites in Pakistan in a pre-emptive strike reminiscent of Israel's 1981 strike on Iraq's nuclear facilities. Israel denied the charge, and the United States stood behind the denials.

The tension was so high that Eliahu Ben-Elissar, Israel's outgoing ambassador to the United States, called his Pakistani colleague in Washington to assure him that Israel had no such intentions.

Even if the Israeli denial is true — and there is no reason to believe that it isn't — the incident indicates the tenseness of the situation.

Pakistan is particularly wary because Israel and India have solid security connections that are growing stronger. And according to recent publications, Israeli firms are bidding to update outdated systems in the Indian military.

Meanwhile, the Iranian foreign minister's visit to Pakistan intensified Israel's concern over Iran's nuclear intentions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that the recent tests could threaten the stability of the region, particularly if regimes like Iran or Iraq obtain nuclear arms.

Kharrazi repeated long-standing Iranian denials. "We have no plans to manufacture nuclear arms," he said. "Everything in Iran is using the atom for peaceful means."

For his part, Yuval Ne'eman, the former science minister and one of Israel's top nuclear experts, provided a comforting voice. Ne'eman said this week that Pakistan would not sell the Iranians nuclear know-how because it had no interest in being dragged into the Middle East conflict.

But despite that contention, a new element had been introduced into the labyrinth of the Middle East. And while Israelis debated among themselves how much damage had been caused by the nuclear tests, the politicians wasted no time in trying to exploit the issue for political gain.

An Israeli government spokesman said the issue would have no bearing on the peace process, but Knesset member Yossi Sarid of the left-leaning Meretz Party blamed Netanyahu for quibbling over the percentages of a further redeployment from the West Bank instead of working to strengthen the forces of moderation in the region.