Assassination worries Israeli policymakers


WASHINGTON — Both in Israel and here in St. Louis, concern ran high among observers that the killing of Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto was a heavy blow to hopes for peace and stability in the region.

For Israelis, the assassin who 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.

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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.”

Locally, reaction was a mixture of sadness and concern.

“My first response is to the human tragedy,” said Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council. “This despicable act of extremism brought down a force for moderation and democracy in Pakistan, and we join our friends in the Pakistani community of St. Louis to mourn her death, and all the other recent victims of the suicide attacks in Pakistan.”

“We pray that the forces of extremism will not triumph,” she added.

Lynn Lyss, a past president of the JCRC and community volunteer, recalled her own attendance at the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after he was gunned down by an assassin. She said she hoped Bhutto’s death would not derail hopes for peace in the region as Rabin’s had.

“My major thought at this moment is that violence only seems to beget more violence,” she said. “Nothing can be gained by the actions of extremists. One can only hope that wise and calm heads will prevail and the current violence will end.”

Karen Aroesty, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League in St. Louis said the killing was a blow to stability in the region.

“She represented stability and the optimism of democracy, and now that’s gone,” she said. “With the influence of al-Qaida and international terrorism and the [nuclear] bomb in Pakistan, the reality of the impact of the potential instability is substantial.”

Barry Rosenberg, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, said the “destabilization of Pakistan is an alarming reminder that the Jewish community must focus much greater attention on countering the rising impact of Islamic extremism.

“That was underscored with the presumed remarks by bin Laden explicitly threatening Israel,” Rosenberg said.

“Al-Qaida has shown penetration in the Palestinian territories. However, the number one threat is Iran and its nuclear potential. Jewish leadership and organizations must intensify education and advocacy.”

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 strategy of garnering 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.

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 1988-90 and 1993-96. 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.

Jewish Light staff contributed to this report.