AS the Israeli Army sent a specially trained rescue team to Buenos Aires to search for possible survivors of a July 18 bomb blast in the Argentine capital, government officials here were blaming Iran for the attack.
But they had not ruled out the possibility that Nazi sympathizers might have planted the bomb that killed at least 26 people and wounded 140 at the Argentine Jewish community's headquarters.
``The signs point to Iran, but there is nothing definitive,'' Israeli Health Minister Efraim Sneh said on July 19.
Suspicion here fell immediately on the radical Islamist Hizbullah group and its sponsor, Iran, because of similarities between the July 18 blast and an explosion at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in March 1992.
That attack, Israeli officials say, was almost certainly the work of Hizbullah militants, although no suspect was ever caught, and investigators found no proof of responsibility.
``The March `92 explosion can be traced with a high degree of certainty to Islamic fundamentalists connected to Iran, and this one resembles it,'' said Uri Dromi, head of the Israeli government press office. ``So the conclusion is the same as we reached last time, unless we find out something else about Nazis or local anti-Semites.''
[Tehran Radio said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mahmoud Mohammadi denied any Iranian involvement in the bombing. Tehran radio did not comment on the arrest of an Iranian citizen at Buenos Aires airport soon after the sealing of Argentina's borders.]
Israeli security officials had warned Israeli institutions worldwide to step up safety precautions after Israeli soldiers kidnapped a senior Hizbullah leader from his home in south Lebanon last May and after a June airstrike on a training camp in Lebanon in which approximately 40 Hizbullah guerrillas were killed.
The bombing is seen here as revenge for those attacks, although no group has yet made a credible claim of responsibility.
But Mr. Dromi said the bombing would not deter further Israeli strikes against Hizbullah, which is fighting to oust Israeli troops from south Lebanon. ``Hizbullah is a bitter enemy, and we don't need any excuses to strike at them,'' he said.
At the same time, the fact that the building destroyed in Buenos Aires housed recently released Argentine government documents about suspected Nazi war criminals raises the possibility that Nazi sympathizers might be involved in the blast.
Researchers at the Delegation of Argentine-Israeli Associations, located on the fifth floor of the destroyed building, have for two years been sifting through documents expected to uncover former Nazis who fled to Argentina after World War II.
``There is an actual possibility that Nazis living [in Argentina] for years will be exposed and may be brought to trial,'' said Efraim Zuroff, head of the Jerusalem office of the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center. ``This thing has become serious for the first time in 40 years.''
But some observers here doubted whether neo-Nazi groups, though not uncommon in Argentina, have the organizational strength to mount a bombing of the July 18 scale. ``As far as we know, only the Iranians have the machinery to carry out this kind of thing,'' Dromi argued.
Although Hizbullah trains its militants in camps in the Bekaa Valley, an area of Lebanon controlled by Syria, government officials have played down Syrian involvement in the blast, preferring to point the finger at Iran.
That emphasis seemed not unconnected with United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher's arrival in Damascus on the morning of July 19, following talks here with Israeli leaders on July 18.
Israeli officials were clearly anxious not to do or say anything that might create problems at a delicate moment in the peace talks between Israel and Syria. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said last week that ``the government of Israel has recognized Syrian sovereignty over the Golan Heights,'' recalling a secret 1967 Israeli Cabinet resolution that was later canceled.
Mr. Christopher called the Buenos Aires blast ``a reminder that despite the glowing prospects, there are still the enemies of peace around the world.''
The resilience of the Middle East peace process to violence has been evident this week on the Palestinian front. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Cairo continued to discuss the extension of autonomy from Gaza and Jericho to the rest of the West Bank, despite the deaths of two Palestinians on July 17. They were shot by Israeli soldiers trying to control a crowd at a checkpoint between Gaza and Israel, where workers gathered trying to enter Israel in search of jobs.