JERUSALEM -- When they were younger, they were friends. For more than 20 years, they have been officially estranged.
Now they are on the verge of reconciliation: The Soviet Union, seeking to undo a break it acknowledges was a mistake, is on the verge of restoring full diplomatic ties with Israel, as one of the last procedural steps before the convening of a Middle East peace conference.
The renewal of full ties could take place as early as today, when Soviet Foreign Minister Boris D. Pankin is scheduled to arrive here to discuss his country's role in the talks. Israel has made renewal of relations a condition for attending the conference, which is set to open by the end of the month under Soviet and U.S. co-sponsorship.
Recent events make restoration of formal links an anticlimax. In the last four years, Israel has gained most of the benefits that normally come with the formal exchange of ambassadors, and it has enjoyed warmer ties with the Soviets than at almost any other time in Israel's history.
"A year ago, diplomatic relations would have meant the world to us," a Foreign Ministry official said. "Now, relations are just the Soviets' ticket to the peace conference. We have shown we could live without them."
The two countries have experienced almost manic highs and lows in their relationship. At various times, the Soviet Union has been Israel's patron and also the patron of Israel's Arab enemies. It has held thousands of Soviet Jews hostage to Cold War politics, and now has allowed hundreds of thousands of Jews to emigrate.
At times, Soviet support has been crucial. It could be argued that the Jewish state might not have come into existence without Soviet diplomatic support, or have survived its first years without military aid from Soviet allies.
In 1947, Moscow provided key votes in the United Nations in favor of measures that led to establishment of the state. The Soviet Union also was the second country -- after the United States -- to recognize Israeli statehood, in 1948. When the new state was attacked by its Arab neighbors, it depended on arms supplied by Czechoslovakia, then a Soviet satellite.
Jerusalem initially seemed assured of having a natural affinity with Moscow. Many of the early Zionist settlers had fled areas under control of the czars, and the socialism preached by the Soviet Union strongly influenced the social theories promoted by Zionists.
But Israeli-Soviet relations became a casualty of the Cold War and then of the paranoia of Soviet leader Josef V. Stalin. In the last months of his life, in 1953, Stalin accused Soviet Jews of plotting against him. In February 1953, the government newspaper Izvestia also charged that the United States planned to make Israel a base for anti-communism in the Middle East.
Moscow then briefly severed ties with Israel as the U.S. relationship with the Jewish state intensified.
Relations were restored soon after Stalin's death, but with a distinct chill. By the late 1950s, the Soviet Union was counteracting Israel's warm ties with France and the United States by backing Arab states, especially Egypt and its charismatic president, Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The 1967 Six-Day War was the turning point. Israel humiliated an Egyptian-led coalition that had relied on Soviet arms and military doctrine. On the day Israel overran Syrian forces on the Golan Heights, the Soviet ambassador announced that relations were being broken.
Moscow's strategy brought few lasting dividends. Without normal relations with Israel, the Soviet Union played a secondary role to the United States, especially when U.S. mediation in 1978 led to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.