Soviet dismay over reports that Israel test-fired a nuclear-capable ballistic missile over 500 miles of Mediterranean Sea in mid-July has put a damper on recently improving relations between the two countries.

On Thursday the official Soviet news agency Tass accused Israel of "trying to acquire a nuclear capability for intimidating its Arab neighbors," the latest in a series of criticisms that began last week with Hebrew-language warnings from Radio Moscow against deploying the missiles.

The Soviet complaint, as the first consular delegation in 20 years and a high official of the Russian Orthodox Church visit the Jewish state, has sparked debate in Israel and speculation abroad about its political and strategic significance.

Israel, which is believed to possess nuclear weapons technology, if not the warheads themselves, neither confirms nor denies its development of ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons.

The report of the test appeared in the July 21 issue of the Geneva-based magazine, International Defense Review, and quoted "informed U.S. sources." The missile, reportedly test-fired over the Mediterranean toward Crete, would be capable of reaching all Arab capitals that Israel considers potentially hostile, including Baghdad, in Iraq.

According to the magazine report, Israel is also working toward testing a missile of 900-mile range, capable of striking parts of the southern Soviet Union.

In Israel, the government has attempted to play down the Soviet complaints, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres have made statements aimed at reassuring the Soviets that Israel has no hostile intentions toward it.

The Soviet Union, according to analysts, has likely known of Israel's ballistic capabilities before, but it was only this latest test that has caused a stir.

If the Israelis deploy nuclear warheads on the missile, known as Jericho II, there could be "very fast payoffs indeed," said Ian Lesser, a political-military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"It means there is another country with a minimum deterrent, like France," Lesser explained, "which has enough to, so to speak, 'tear off an arm' " in the Soviet Union.

"That is something to reckon with," he observed. "If the Soviets made an issue of it, it suggests that they are upset about it."

Lesser also suggested that military elements in the Soviet Union might find Israel's advances in missile technology disturbing, even as other elements in the Soviet hierarchy are intent on cultivating better relations.

"If you have a ballistic missile of increasingly great range," Lesser said, "the ability of the superpowers to intervene {in the region} without fear of retaliation either to their forces or conceivably in their home territory, goes down. Before, they could intervene with impunity. Now looking out 10 to 12 years from now, one can't be so sure."

Soviet-Israeli relations have been improving in recent months for the first time since the Soviet Union broke diplomatc relations after the 1967 Middle East war. A Soviet consular delegation and a high official of the Russian Orthodox Church are in Israel this week. It was also confirmed this week that the Bolshoi Ballet and Red Army Chorus plan to perform in Israel in 1989.

One official speculated that the Soviet warnings constitute political collateral for Moscow against providing other Arab states with weapons similar to Jericho II, at a time when the Soviet Union and the United States are negotiating to eliminate nuclear missiles of that range from Europe and Asia. If the Soviets want a reason to deny Syria the advanced intermediate-range SS23 that Syria has requested, the Soviet Union has also demonstrated its unhappiness with Israel's development of a comparable missile, the official explained.

Jerusalem Radio reported last week that the Soviet Union decided not to sell Syria intermediate-range SS23 missiles, a new generation of the surface-to-surface SS21 missiles that Syria has. SS21s have a range of about 50 miles.

The predecessor to Jericho II, called Jericho, has a range of about 270 miles. It was reportedly deployed in 1975 and represented a leap forward for Israel in range and accuracy in ballistic missile technology.

Jericho II was said to have been test-fired in unpopulated parts of Iran in the mid- and late 1970s, during a period of Israel's cooperation with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The report of a deployment in May 1985 of an unspecified number of nuclear-armed Jericho II missiles in the Negev Desert and the Golan Heights was denied by Israel at the time.