Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said in Los Angeles Friday that American willingness to grant refugee status to Soviet Jewish emigrants even if they hold Israeli visas is an “insult” to his nation that damages efforts for the “liberation” of Soviet Jews.
Speaking to an audience of 1,000 at a World Affairs Council luncheon in Century City, Shamir called on American Jewish leaders to press for a change in the U.S. policy.
“When a Jew, a Jewish family, is given a visa to Israel and they leave for Israel, they are already regarded as Israeli citizens,” Shamir said. “It is an offense for Israel, an insult,” when they are admitted to the United States as refugees.
Israel’s fight for the right of Soviet Jews to live a Jewish life in Israel is undercut when people leave the Soviet Union with Israeli visas and then come to the United States instead, he said.
Shamir recalled that a Soviet official once said to him: “You say you are fighting for the emigration of the Jews . . . to Israel. And they are not going to Israel. They are going to the United States. . . . How can we accept your demands?”
“I must say, it was very difficult to give him an answer,” Shamir said.
Shamir said that Jews wishing to leave the Soviet Union may apply directly for U.S. visas, and then Israel has no objection if they go to the United States.
“But when some people are getting Israeli visas thanks to our struggle for their liberation, they have to come to Israel,” Shamir said in an impassioned voice. “I ask you, leaders of the American Jewry, to support us in this justified demand.”
Shamir said he pressed this request on U.S. officials during his visit to Washington earlier this week, and that they have taken it under consideration.
But any change in the policy “depends, I understand, mainly on the position of the Jewish leaders in the United States,” he said.
Shamir’s comments came in response to a question from the audience about the effect on Jewish emigration of generally increased openness in the Soviet Union. He said that Israel does not see any change affecting emigration.
In 1986, according to figures compiled by refugee agencies, Moscow allowed only 944 Jews to emigrate. Annual arrivals at a Vienna resettlement and transit center reached a record high of 51,330 in 1979, but dropped steadily in subsequent years to 1984’s record low of 922.
In recent years, only one-quarter to one-third of the emigrants have gone to Israel.
Shamir said Friday that more than 160,000 Soviet Jews now live in Israel.
Responding to a question about Israeli arms sales in Central America, Shamir denied that Israel has ever aided the U.S.-backed contras fighting the Nicaraguan government.
“We have never sold arms to the contras and we have never given them any other help,” he said.
In his prepared remarks, Shamir repeated a call he made Thursday in Washington for a five-party Mideast peace conference to be attended by representatives of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinians and the United States.
Such a conference, he said, would carry forward the peace process begun with the 1978 Camp David accords, which established the framework for peace between Israel and Egypt.
Shamir received a standing ovation when he entered the Century Plaza Hotel banquet hall and again when he rose to speak. He was welcomed by Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who presented him with a key to the city.
In his opening remarks, Shamir responded that Bradley would not need such a key.
“For you and every friend of Israel in Los Angeles, every town in Israel is open,” he said.
Shamir’s speech took place amid tight security, with metal-detector screening of all guests and a dozen security agents positioned near the stage.