Israel receives first visit by Soviet foreign minister--and a pledge of full relations

May 11, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

TEL AVIV, Israel -- Promising that full diplomatic ties with Israel "will come," Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh quietly opened a new era in Soviet-Israeli relations yesterday by expressing optimism that the two countries eventually could agree on plans for a regional peace conference.

Mr. Bessmertnykh was assured a warm welcome here by his mere presence, as the first Soviet foreign minister to visit Israel. His six-hour stay was occupied by talks with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister David Levy. There was no public mention of differences of opinion.

Mr. Bessmertnykh disappointed Israelis by not announcing an immediate restoration of diplomatic relations, broken off during the 1967 Six-Day War. But he and Mr. Levy described the visit as only the first and pledged that relations would continue to improve.

"We have a lot of potential to develop these ties," Mr. Bessmertnykh said before flying to Cairo, Egypt. "We are moving very, very close to resuming full ties. It will come."

In Cairo, Mr. Bessmertnykh is to confer with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and later with Secretary of State James A. Baker III. Mr. Baker was flying yesterday to Syria to begin a fourth round of talks about U.S. proposals for formal Arab-Israeli negotiations.

The Middle East visits are intended to persuade Israel, Arab states and Palestinians to drop some of their conflicting demands for how talks should be organized. Mr. Baker is seeking agreement on, among other things, who could represent Palestinians and what powers the United States and the Soviet Union would have as the talks' sponsors.

At a joint news conference with Mr. Levy, Mr. Bessmertnykh said all went well in his meetings in Israel. "It is the personal contacts that are important, in the chance to continue a process for a peace settlement," he said. "This chance is quite good, quite substantial."

Judged solely by Mr. Bessmertnykh's and Mr. Levy's remarks, ** the Soviet Union and Israel were best of friends, not the sometimes-adversaries who were in sharp public disagreement as recently as Thursday.

Then, during a stop in Jordan, Mr. Bessmertnykh said the Soviet Union might consider limiting Jewish immigration if Israel continued expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. He also indicated that building new settlements would not be acceptable once peace talks got under way.

Mr. Levy hinted that nothing of the sort arose in their talks here, while Mr. Bessmertnykh left reporters' questions about the subject unanswered.

"In our talks there was neither pressure nor threats, or anything of that sort," Mr. Levy said. "The policy of the Soviet Union is in the direction of peace."

Mr. Bessmertnykh's visit was part of the Soviet Union's effort to undo what Soviet officials describe as the "mistake" of having severed diplomatic ties in 1967. That break left the Soviet Union less influential in the region than the United States and frustrated at the difference.

Relations between the Soviet Union and Israel have included extreme highs and lows. At the United Nations in 1947, the Soviet Union provided crucial support for the creation of Israel.

But Moscow broke off relations in 1953 as one consequence of the anti-Semitic campaign Soviet dictator Josef V. Stalin launched in his last months of life. Ties were restored after his death but were accompanied by a distinct chill, as the Soviet Union became the chief patron and arms supplier of Arab states. The 1967 war led to another break in relations.

When another war erupted in 1973, the Soviet Union again supported the Arabs and issued veiled threats against Israel unless its forces halted their advance.

For the next several years, Soviet and Israeli representatives exchanged harsh words in public while officials met more cordially in private.

Contacts continued even when Moscow's support for Arab leaders openly hostile to Israel was at its public height.

Two Soviet Foreign Ministry officials traveled to Israel in 1975 to meet with then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. They returned in 1977 to talk with Mr. Rabin's successor, Menachem Begin.

Israel's desire to see Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union came to dominate both the private and public discussions. Changes in the number of Soviet immigrants closely reflected the ups and downs in Soviet-Israeli contacts, and in the early 1980s the number of immigrants dropped to new lows.

Soviet strategy seemed to bring Moscow little success. Without normal relations with Israel, the Soviet Union played a secondary role to the United States. In 1978, Soviet prestige in the region sank to its lowest level when U.S. mediation produced a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

Change in Soviet policies came with the arrival of Mikhail S. Gorbachev as the Soviet leader. In June 1987, a Soviet consular mission arrived in Tel Aviv. A year later, an Israeli delegation went to Moscow.

By mid-1989, Israel had virtually all of the potential benefits of formal relations without an exchange of ambassadors.

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