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Bhutto assassination sets off Israeli alarms

Pakistani protesters chant slogans against General Pervez Musharraf following his imposition of martial law in November 2007. (Ejaz Asi/Creative Commons)

Pakistani protesters chant slogans against General Pervez Musharraf following his imposition of martial law in November 2007. (Ejaz Asi/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – For Israelis, the assassin that killed Benazir Bhutto removed another barrier shielding the Jewish state from the Islamic bomb.

Israel’s media and leadership portrayed the sniper-suicide bombing attack Thursday that ended the onetime Pakistani prime minister’s life as a blow to hopes for a bridge to the Islamic world. They also suggested it raised the risk of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb falling into militant Islamist hands.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called Bhutto’s death a “great tragedy,” according to the Jerusalem Post. “I saw her as someone who could have served as a bridgehead to relations with that part of the Muslim world with whom our ties are naturally limited,” the newspaper quoted Olmert as saying.

Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, issued condolences to the Pakistani people.

Bhutto “demonstrated brave leadership for her people,” Livni said in a statement. “Israel expresses the hope that Pakistan will continue along the path of reconciliation, moderation and democracy.”

The chaos precipitated by the killing poses dangers beyond Pakistan’s immediate neighborhood, said Jack Rosen, a past president of the American Jewish Congress, noting that Pakistan is one of a handful of declared nuclear powers and the only Muslim country with the bomb. Rosen, who was the first Jewish leader to host a Pakistani leader when the AJCongress held a dinner for President Pervez Musharraf two years ago, said he was trying to reach the leadership in Pakistan for an assessment.

“If the government fell into extremist hands, the bomb also falls into the hands of extremists,” Rosen told JTA “You don’t need to worry about a nuclear Iran; you have a nuclear Pakistan in the hands of extremists.”

Israel radio led its hourly news Friday evening quoting the Pentagon as saying that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal was “under control.”

Prior to her return from exile in October, Bhutto, 54, had been reaching out to Israel as part of a broader strategy of garnering Western support for her confrontation with the military regime led by Musharraf. The United States had been pressing its ally, Musharraf, into accommodating Bhutto’s push for new elections.

“She wrote me of how she admired Israel and of her desire to see a normalization in the relations between Israel and Pakistan, including the establishment of diplomatic ties,” Dan Gillerman, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, told Ynet, an online Israeli news site affiliated with Israel’s daily Yediot Acharonot.

According to a report in Israel’s daily Ma’ariv, Bhutto reached out to the Mossad, among other security agencies, for protection.

Bhutto sensed that Musharraf was not fully committed to protecting her, the Ma’ariv report said. Among the routine protective requests Musharraf’s government denied, the report said, were darkened windows on all the cars of her convoy and explosive detection devices.

Israeli authorities favored helping her, said Ma’ariv, which reported that she also had turned to Scotland Yard and the CIA for assistance. Hesitant to offend Musharraf, Israel’s government had yet to make a decision, the report said.

Bhutto was not always so friendly toward Israel. Pakistan maintained its traditionally hostile posture during her two stints as prime minister, in 1988-1990 and 1993-1996. Those were also periods during which Pakistan’s nuclear chief, A. Q. Khan, was developing what he dubbed an “Islamic bomb,” and, according to reports, marketing it to Israel’s most intransigent enemies at the time, Libya and Iran.

Musharraf contained Khan, placing him under house arrest, but only after the United States increased pressure in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Rosen said Musharraf still represented Israel’s best hope for reconciliation, noting other signs of warming since the 2005 AJCongress dinner.

“Musharraf has done a number of things,” said Rosen, who now chairs the AJCongress’ Council for World Jewry. “He had his foreign minister publicly meet the Israeli foreign minister. He accepted aid from Israel for the earthquake victims.”

For Jews and Pakistanis in America, the assassination presents an opportunity for dialogue, said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.

Coincidentally, Schneier said, a meeting between American Jewish communal leaders and Pakistani officials had been set just prior to the assassination. Now, he added, the meeting, to take place next month, was more imperative than ever.

“Now,” Schneier told JTA, “there is a shared experience, both in terms of the assassination” in 1995 of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, “and in terms of the impact of extremism.”

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