Soviet Mission Visits Israel; Role Limited
The first official Soviet government delegation to visit Israel in a generation Monday huddled with Finnish diplomats in Tel Aviv and visited the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem after arriving secretly the night before to avoid anti-Soviet demonstrations.
Israeli officials and the head of the visiting team played down the scope of the Soviet mission, which is ostensibly designed to discuss consular questions concerning Soviet citizens in Israel and to survey property owned here by the officially sanctioned Russian Orthodox Church.
“Don’t interpret (the visit) as a step toward establishing diplomatic or consular relations,” Yevgeny Antipov, head of the eight-member delegation, cautioned reporters who caught up with him outside the church offices. “We have very limited tasks here. We don’t have any political tasks.”
Antipov is deputy director of the Soviet Foreign Ministry’s consular department.
“I don’t see any reason to inflate the importance of this delegation,” Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres commented during a visit in the Tel Aviv area. He said he would meet with the Soviet officials “only if they request it.”
The Soviets were due to have their first official meeting this morning with low-level Israeli Foreign Ministry officials.
While the visit may not herald any immediate change in the prickly Soviet-Israeli relations, it is nonetheless seen here as a symbolically important step toward reopening a political dialogue interrupted 20 years ago when Moscow broke official ties with the Jewish state after the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967 known as the Six-Day War.
A senior official close to the foreign minister told The Times that the Soviet Union also conveyed a message to Peres a few days ago suggesting that it would be ready for higher-level exchanges “in a few weeks.” A similar signal was given to U.S. Under Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy during meetings he held in Geneva earlier this month with his Soviet counterpart, Vladimir Polyakov.
‘Room for Flexibility’
Together, the Israeli official said, these moves suggest that the Soviets are trying to broaden their Middle East options and that there “may be room for flexibility in their position.”
The Soviet delegation that arrived here from Cyprus on Sunday night includes the deputy director of the Soviet Foreign Ministry’s Middle East bureau, whom Israeli officials identified as Aleksei Chestikov, 41. Antipov said that Chestikov accompanied the consular team “to support us.”
Peres is promoting the idea of an international conference on Middle East peace in which the Soviet Union would take part, provided the Kremlin agrees to reestablish diplomatic ties with Israel and open its borders to greater emigration by Soviet Jews. The Kremlin also backs the peace conference notion, although not necessarily under the same terms as Peres.
On the other hand, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is adamantly opposed to such a forum, arguing that it would only lead to unbearable pressures on Israel to give up territory on the West Bank of the Jordan River, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights that it has occupied since the 1967 war.
So secret was the arrival of the Soviet delegation that as late as Monday morning, several hours after the Soviets were already in Tel Aviv, a Foreign Ministry official was still saying the government had no information about when the group would come.
Plans by Soviet-Jewish activists to protest the visit with a demonstration at the airport were frustrated by the tight security, said Yuri Stern, spokesman for the Soviet Jewish Education and Information Center here.
Stern called the visit “untimely, insulting and potentially very dangerous.” He said it is taking place while the Soviet Union still holds two prisoners, Aleksei Magarik and Yosef Zissels, who were jailed for Zionist activities. Also, he said, Moscow has refused to allow a reciprocal visit by an Israeli consular team, and he questioned the long-term implications of making concessions to the Kremlin before any real dialogue begins.
Stern said that Soviet Jewish activists still plan vigils, picketing and other demonstrations during the delegation’s visit.
Members of the Soviet delegation hold 90-day, multiple-entry visas, which a Foreign Ministry spokesman said could be extended if requested.
The visit has been more than a year in the making and was preceded last August by an abbreviated meeting in Helsinki between small Israeli and Soviet delegations. That session was broken off by the Soviets after only 90 minutes when the Israeli side brought up the issue of Soviet Jewish emigration.
Members of the Soviet team, dressed casually in open-necked shirts, began their day at a Finnish Embassy annex in Tel Aviv, where the Kremlin’s interests have been handled since 1967. They visited Jerusalem and the Russian Orthodox headquarters in the afternoon, spending more than three hours with church officials.