WASHINGTON -- The Soviet Union moved closer to re-establishing diplomatic ties with Israel yesterday after a 23-year break as each side backed off entrenched approaches to the Middle East peace process.
Emerging from an hourlong meeting here with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze said that the process for restoring the ties broken after the Six Day War in 1967 was "developing in a normal fashion."
"We are not setting preconditions," he said.
The Soviets had demanded that Israel reverse its long-standing opposition to a Middle East peace conference. But last night, Mr. Shevardnadze sounded more open to other processes, including the bilateral negotiations Israel favors, to bring Israel and its Arab opponents to the peace table.
For his part, Mr. Shamir, whose government had opposed Soviet participation in the peace process, said that he appreciated Mr. Shevardnadze's sincere effort to resolve the problems of the region.
The Soviets have allowed vast numbers of Jews to emigrate, prompting Mr. Shamir to endorse lifting the Jackson-Vanik restrictions on U.S.-Soviet trade.
Israel has also sought a restoration of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union for some time, and Soviet cooperation would undermine Israel's Arab enemies by depriving them of a superpower patron.
From the U.S. standpoint, the improving ties between an old friend and a major new friend underscore the U.S.-Soviet foreign policy coordination shown in the Persian Gulf crisis and send a new signal to Iraq that it can't divide the superpowers.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Shamir said that Israel was open to "serious study" of the kind of Middle East arms control process advocated Tuesday by Mr. Shevardnadze, including a nuclear-free zone.
But he said that there would have to be a "complete change" first in relations among countries in the Middle East.
"We are ready to start a serious study of all these problems of disarmament and a free nuclear zone, and all the arrangements in order to limit and annihilate any possibility of the use of non-conventional arms in our area," Mr. Shamir said.
"Of course, it's a very serious and complicated issue. And there . . . is a need for many preconditions for it. It has to come with a complete change of all the relations between the various countries in the Middle East. But all that is very desirable, and we are ready to participate in this work."
Both the United States and Soviet Union advocate a regional arms control process -- including Israel -- once the Persian Gulf crisis is settled. A key aim is to reduce Iraq's arsenal of chemical and biological weapons and block its nuclear potential, which also could be curbed by continued sanctions and tougher controls among suppliers.
But the demand that Israel be included sends a signal of reassurance to Iraq that the arms control burden would be shared.
The United States rejects any formal linkage between the gulf crisis and the Arab-Israeli conflict, but officials have sought in public statements to assure Iraq that it wouldn't be militarily threatened if it pulled out of Kuwait and complied with other U.N. Security Council demands.
Speaking to the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, Mr. Shamir again rejected a proposed international peace conference.
"Israel will not participate in such a conference, and Israel will not accept imposed solutions," he said.