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Israel should be paying very close attention to the nuclear developments in south Asia. After seven years during which India and Pakistan were at least formally under a regime of sanctions - imposed by the American government because of nuclear testing by the two countries - the tide has turned.

Two weeks ago, the Bush administration decided to sell Pakistan 32 F-16 warplanes, and to propose a similar deal to India. It is providing both countries with equipment and technology that will help them beef up the security of their nuclear warheads and even plans to sell India nuclear reactors.

Thus, President George W. Bush is in effect inviting India and Pakistan formally to join the nuclear club, which so far includes only the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. So, the very person who initiated an all-out war against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction - and even sent his army to conquer Iraq on the grounds that it was developing nuclear arms - has in effect accepted the "nuclearization" of the subcontinent.

There is no small measure of irony in the fact that it is Bush of all people who is offering the Pakistanis American warplanes, since it was his father who canceled an F-16 deal with Pakistan in 1990, due to Pakistan's refusal to respond to American pressure and cancel its nuclear program. Of course there was no chance of persuading Pakistan to give up development of nuclear weapons, while the Indians energetically continued with their own nuclear bomb program. On May 11, 1998, India conducted three nuclear tests and two days later, two more. And two weeks later, Pakistan responded with five nuclear tests and became the eighth nuclear power.

As obliged by American law, President Bill Clinton imposed sanctions on both countries, which did not prevent them from continuing to build nuclear bombs. Now the younger Bush has reformulated the rules for joining the exclusive nuclear club. Considering the developments of the last few weeks, it seems that India will be the first to show up at the front door of the club with an application to join, signed by the president of the United States.

In the early years after India and Pakistan's nuclear tests, administration experts tried coming up with a policy that would lead to them giving up their bombs, even if by coercion. But by July 2002, John Wolfe, the assistant secretary of state mandated to prevent nuclear proliferation, said it was a lost cause.

However, in the wake of a 1999 Pakistani army invasion of Indian Kashmir, India and Pakistan were on the verge of war. It was largely avoided because of the self restraint imposed by the leaders in both New Delhi and Islamabad, who feared a nuclear exchange. Washington understood that the presence of nuclear weapons in the Indian subcontinent might actually contribute to regional stability, so it would be better to let the two countries form some rules of nuclear restraint instead of turning a blind eye to their nuclear empowerment.

The Indians, who want to exploit the American readiness to change the rules, also changed their policy, and instead of rejecting international inspection treaties, they present themselves as a responsible nuclear state.

"India may not be a side to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty," Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh said two weeks ago, "but it has always behaved in accordance with the main conditions of the treaty."

Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri emphasized that "Pakistan is a responsible country, and our command and control systems [over nuclear weapons] are totally protected."

Indeed, Washington's readiness to sell F-16s to Pakistan shows that it is indeed treating that country as being responsible when it comes to nuclear matters.

Israel should exploit these developments. A year ago, the prestigious Carnegie Institute published a study calling on the U.S. to change its policy toward three nuclear powers that had not signed the NPT - India, Pakistan and Israel.

Instead of demanding that they give up their weapons and pressuring them to join the NPT, it would be preferable to persuade them to behave according to the rules. For example, to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons their stockpiles of nuclear material must be safeguarded, and they must not conduct nuclear tests. In exchange, the three countries would find a reduction of the pressure on them to shut down their nuclear stockpiles.

Following that line, the nuclear policy-makers in Israel should exploit the possible opening of the doors of the nuclear club to India and Pakistan, and lobby the American administration and the international community also to be admitted to the club. The time has come to put an end to the fiction of nuclear ambiguity and to get on the bandwagon that the Americans are leading for India and Pakistan.