''PAKISTAN on Saturday welcomed an offer of earthquake assistance from Israel," the Associated Press reported on Oct. 15, ''but said it would have to be channeled through the United Nations, the Red Cross, or donated to a relief fund."
On the surface, an unremarkable detail amid the devastation in Kashmir. But this is a story worth pausing over. For between the lines, it speaks volumes about the real stakes in the war between the civilized world and radical Islam.
The magnitude 7.6 earthquake that struck on Oct. 8 triggered, in the words of Pakistan's prime minister, ''a disaster of unprecedented proportions in Pakistan's history." In one terrible upheaval, it killed tens of thousands of people, trapped or injured thousands more, and left an estimated 2 million homeless.
Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, went on television with an urgent plea for international help. Among the offers of humanitarian aid that began streaming into Islamabad was one from Israel, which is all too experienced in disaster rescue and relief. When a natural calamity strikes, Israel is often among the first nations to offer help; within 48 hours of the tsunami last December, for example, Israel had airlifted teams of medical and emergency workers, as well as 80 tons of supplies, to the stricken countries.
But as days went by and the Pakistani death toll mounted, there was no reply to Israel's offer of assistance. The Jerusalem Post recalled the 2003 earthquake in Iran, when the Tehran theocracy announced that it would welcome ''all kinds of humanitarian aid from all countries and international organizations, with the exception of the Zionist regime." Pakistan, the world's second-most-populous Muslim nation, had never established diplomatic relations with Israel, but, unlike Iran, its attitude was supposed to be changing. In Istanbul on Sept. 1, the Israeli and Pakistani foreign ministers had met publicly for the first time; two weeks later Musharraf had shaken Ariel Sharon's hand at a United Nations reception in New York. Equally dramatic was Musharraf's conciliatory speech to the American Jewish Congress on Sept. 17, the first time a Pakistani ruler had ever addressed an audience of American Jews.
Yet it was not until Oct. 14, six days after Israel had communicated its willingness to help the earthquake victims ''in any way possible," that it finally received a formal response. Yes, aid from Israel would be welcome, provided it was laundered through a third party. ''We have established the president's relief fund, and everyone is free to contribute to it," a government spokeswoman coolly acknowledged. ''If Israel was to contribute -- that's fine, we would accept it." Israel could help save Pakistani lives, in other words, as long as it wasn't too public about doing so. There mustn't be any embarrassing images of planes with Israeli markings offloading relief supplies at Islamabad's airport.
And no one should imagine that Israel's generosity toward a nation that has long been among its harshest critics and in which anti-Semitism is rampant would have any effect on Islamabad's thinking. According to the Daily Times, a Pakistani newspaper, the spokeswoman insisted that ''accepting an indirect donation from Israel did not mean that Pakistan had planned to recognize it" or to alter its stance toward Israel, ''which was unchangeable."
Israel will not criticize Pakistan's insulting behavior, preferring to understand it as a reality of Pakistani domestic politics. For Musharraf, a diplomat in the Israeli Foreign Ministry told me, ''the number one priority is regime survival" -- and any regime that failed to treat the Jewish state with the appropriate level of contempt would outrage Pakistani public opinion.
But that loathing of Israel and Jews is not just a quirk of Pakistani politics. It is a hallmark of the radical Islamists whose terrorism worldwide has shed so much blood -- and who hold sway over more than 70 percent of Pakistan, according to Tashbih Sayyed, editor of the weekly newspaper Pakistan Today. An outspoken Muslim moderate, Sayyed sees Musharraf's recent overtures toward Israel as a feint -- an insincere tactic intended to impress Washington.
''That is why he has done nothing to challenge the way Jews and Israel are portrayed by the Islamists -- as demons, as an evil force," he argues. Many Pakistanis would welcome a genuine effort from the top to combat the radicals' hatred and lies but are not brave enough to fight them on their own. And so the Islamists go on spreading their lethal ideology.
And that, writ large, is the problem at the core of the war on terrorism. ''The Muslim world is plunged into an abyss of darkness, antimodernity, anti-Americanism, and anti-Semitism," Sayyed says. Only a minority of Muslims are personally hateful or fanatic. But a minority can wreak enormous damage when the majority is unwilling to act.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.