NEW YORK. — Jews from the Soviet Union are flocking to Israel by the thousands every day, making Ben-Gurion airport look like turn-of-the-century Ellis Island. The massive exodus is bound to transform the state of Israel and should loom as a road sign for Arab countries: The time has come to recognize Israel's existence.
Israel's 4 million Jews may increase by as much as 50 percent within a few years. By 1997, for the first time since antiquity, the world's largest Jewish community will be in Israel. For Israel this is a long-awaited blood transfusion that is likely to strengthen it economically, politically and diplomatically.
Judging by past experience, Israel will absorb the current wave of immigrants within a few years. In the 1950s, a million Israelis, predominantly from European countries, absorbed about as many Jews from pre-industrialized Muslim societies. It took long and painful decades to bridge cultural and economic gaps, but today 25 percent of marriages in Israel are between these two groups, and Israelis from Muslim countries have reached such positions of prominence as president of Israel, chief of staff, foreign minister, finance minister and CEO of the biggest bank.
The well-educated and highly-skilled Soviet immigrants, including engineers, musicians, scientists, doctors, surgeons and writers, will make it in Israel even faster. There already are signs of economic growth. For the first time since the eruption of the Palestinian uprising, Israel's gross domestic product rose by more than 5 percent in 1990.
The 200,000 immigrants who arrived in Israel last year found housing, one way or another. The 400,000 expected in 1991 might have to live for a while in caravans and tents. But Israelis are willing to sacrifice for this cause, and they will. The government's current bud- get appropriated more money for immigrant absorption than for any other purpose -- the first time ever that defense did not win the lion's share in Israel's expenditures.
Once housed and employed, the Soviet Jews will boost Israel's economy, as did their 120,000 predecessors who moved to Israel during the Brezhnev-Nixon detente era in the '70s. Of those, 93 percent remained in Israel and found their place in the middle and upper-middle classes.
Politically, the immigrants, who will constitute at least 10 percent of the electorate, could tip the scale between Labor and Likud. Whether they will tilt right or left remains to be seen, but religious parties stand to lose at any rate, since the typical Soviet immigrant is secular. Thanks to Soviet immigration, Israel's chronic government paralysis may be cured after the fall '92 elections.
The immigrant influx also should help end Israel's diplomatic isolation. The East Bloc, the traditional first violin in the international anti-Israeli orchestra, is gone. Gone are the training camps for terrorists in East Germany and Bulgaria, gone are arms shipments from Czechoslovakia to Israel's enemies, and gone, for now, is Soviet manipulation of Jewish freedom.
Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland have recently established full diplomatic relations with Israel, and the U.S.S.R. exchanged consul generals with the Jewish state.
Europe's newly emerging democracies have reached the conclusion that Israel does exist. It is time for Arab countries to follow suit. The nearly universal Arab refusal to recognize Israel's existence is not only anachronistic; it contributes to prevalent feelings in Israel that the Palestinians are merely the front lines of some 200 million Arabs hostile to Israel.
The arrival of Arab ambassadors in Israel would facilitate a change of attitudes, as did the arrival of Anwar Sadat. It would signal to mainstream Israelis that the Arab world has finally come terms with Israel's presence in the Mideast. It would also raise the prospect of economic integration in the region, which the Arab world has denied Israel since its birth.
In a Mideast hospitable to Israel, an Israeli-Palestinian settlement -- probably a triangular pact with Jordan -- would not seem like science fiction. When Israel will be allowed to buy oil from Algeria or the United Arab Emirates, and sell irrigation systems to Tunisia, food products to Jordan and electronic devices to Saudi Arabia, both hard-line and mainstream Israelis will agree that the Arabs mean business.
The Zionist dream to regain control of Jewish destiny by returning a majority of the world's Jews to their ancestral land is coming true. Palestinians and other Arabs may want to reflect about the direction and relevance of their 70-year-old struggle against Zionism.
Amotz Asa-el, a former Israeli diplomat, wrote this commentary for the Christian Science Monitor.