BUENOS AIRES — HALFWAY across the world from the Middle East, with an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic population, Argentina seems an unlikely target for international terrorists intent on disrupting the Arab-Israeli peace process.
But a closer look reveals a country with a sizable and visible Jewish community, a lax security system, and 5,000 miles of largely unsecured borders.
That mix again proved to be a magnet for terrorists when a seven-story building housing several Jewish organizations was bombed on July 18. At least 59 people died, more than 206 were injured, and dozens are still missing.
Two years ago, 30 people died when a bomb destroyed the Israeli Embassy here. Investigators have not found those responsible for the attack, though they believe it to be the work of Muslim extremists.
A Lebanon-based Islamic group has claimed responsibility for the July 18 explosion and the recent bombing of a Panamanian plane carrying mostly Jewish passengers.
``It's just one of those sad signs that geography is no protection against these type of things,'' says an analyst. ``There's a well-established Jewish community here, and it's a visible target.''
Argentina has one of the largest Jewish populations outside of Israel and the largest in Latin America. Most of the country's 300,000 Jews, whose ancestors migrated to Argentina over the past 100 years, now reside in Buenos Aires.
Once (pronounced OWN-say), the neighborhood where the bomb exploded, is a commercial and residential district for thousands of Jews and Arabs. Members of the country's Jewish and Arab communities (Argentina's Arab population totals more than 500,000) have both held prominent places in the private and public sectors.
Two visible examples are President Carlos Saul Menem, a former Muslim of Syrian heritage who converted to Roman Catholicism, and the mayor of Buenos Aires, Saul Bouer, who is Jewish.
Argentines are upset that an anti-Semitic act has again focused international attention on a country where Jews and Arabs live together peacefully.
``At the recent funeral of my father, a friend proudly told me that his daughter, the grandchild of an Arab immigrant, is the head of a computer lab of a Jewish organization in Cordoba,'' says Carlos Rodolfo Doglioli, a retired Army officer. ``That's normal ... it happens all the time here.''
There is also concern that the attack could damage the country's international standing, which President Menem has persistently tried to improve since assuming office in 1989. Trying to end years of isolation, Menem has increased international links by sending troops to the Gulf war, signing international treaties, and making concessions at the international trade talks held in Geneva.
``Up until Menem, Argentina had been an outsider to the world,'' says Emilio Perina, a Buenos Aires-based lawyer and editor. ``The pendulum has swung back and forth in this country. We need continuation and stability. This [bombing] could hurt our international image by creating a lack of confidence.''
To combat that image, Menem set up a new security office the day after the bombing, though heavy opposition forced him to shelve a similar security plan two months ago.
The newly created Security Secretariat, which will oversee existing security organizations such as the Federal Police, National Border Guard, and Coast Guard, has touched a sensitive nerve in Argentines. People who lived through a five-year military dictatorship that led to the disappearance of nearly 30,000 people are wary of creating a security agency with wide-reaching power.
Opposition politicians and citizen groups claim Menem is using the bombing to set up an office that will control internal social unrest before next year's presidential election.
Others say the office could be beneficial if it coordinates and streamlines existing police and security departments.
Menem has focused his presidency on restructuring the economy, but according to Raul Alberto Betrica, director of international cooperation at the Center of Studies for the New Majority, Argentina is restructuring all functions of the state, not just the economy. ``Argentina needs someone to coordinate all the forces. Right now, it has the image of a country that's easy to attack.
``And security is not just checking passports and visas at the border. It's technology and professionals that can keep track of terrorist groups and interact with the intelligence agencies of other countries.''
Observers agree that Argentina's lax security measures make it attractive to terrorists. ``You can move around here and it's not a police state,'' says Feliz Zumelzu, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Argentina. ``But there's enough media here that the coverage is instantaneous. You can make a big splash.''