Soviets probe improved relations with Israel. Kremlin seen to be testing reaction in the Middle East
The talks in Helsinki between Israeli and Soviet Foreign Ministry officials this week have sparked a surge of speculation. Although Soviet spokesmen have gone out of their way to stress that the talks are purely on consular issues, observers are convinced that the meetings go beyond that in significance, if not in content.
Moscow broke diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967 during the six-day war. The meetings, to discuss the possibility of resuming consular contacts, are being held at Moscow's suggestion. They begin today and are scheduled to last two days.
Israeli officials have said that their main interest is Jewish emigration. At least 250,000 Soviet Jews left the country in the 1970s. In the first six months of this year, only 386 Jews left the Soviet Union; 93 of them went to Israel. Israeli activists, including the recently released Soviet dissident Anatoly Shcharansky, claim that 400,000 Soviet Jews want to emigrate.
Moscow dismisses this as a gross exaggeration, and says that emigration is not on the agenda. The Soviets say they want to discuss Soviet property in the Israel -- estimated to be worth about $100 million -- and consular services for Russian-born Israelis.
There are a number of good arguments to make in favor of the view that the meetings are at the very least a probe by Moscow designed to gauge how interested Jerusalem is in improved relations, and also to see how Moscow's main Arab allies will react to the talks.
First, in his 17 months of power, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has shown a marked aversion to the status quo both in domestic and foreign policy.
In February, he told the 27th Communist Party Congress here that ``the world is in a process of change, and it is not in anyone's power to maintain the status quo.'' Continuity in foreign policy, Gorbachev said, did not just mean repeating what had been said in the past.
The party congress was followed by several foreign policy initiatives -- most recently on Asia. Latin America and the Middle East are, in fact, the only parts of the world where the Soviet Union has not yet made new proposals. And Israel has made it clear that it would not countenance Soviet participation in any peace talks until full diplomatic relations are restored.
Second, for the last few months, the Soviet Foreign Ministry has been undergoing a radical reorganization, said by specialists to have been the most comprehensive ever. The reorganization has just been completed, Soviet diplomats say. It would seem difficult, therefore, to claim that the talks are just a case of business as usual.
There have been other faint indications of a renewed interest by Moscow in Israel. Last December, a news commentator for the Soviet news agency Novosti advanced the view that a restoration of Soviet-Israeli relations was possible in the course of 1986.
Moscow's close ally Poland, not known for independent diplomatic initiatives, recently agreed to restore low-level relations with Israel.
And earlier this month, the Jewish community of another compliant ally, Bulgaria, invited Shulamit Shamir to visit. Mrs. Shamir is the Bulgarian-born wife of Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who will become prime minister of Israel in October. The invitation was issued with the approval of the Bulgarian government, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry noted.
These moves are reminiscent, though more subdued in tone, of the improvement in relations between Moscow's East-bloc allies and China, which preceded Moscow's latest push for improved relations with Peking.
But there are also compelling arguments against any expectations of a major improvement in relations between the two countries.
Though these may be the first official talks between Soviet and Israeli officials since 1967, they are not the first contacts. Soviet and Israeli foreign ministers have met from time to time since then. In October 1985, for example, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres spoke briefly at the UN in New York.
And Moscow certainly is not toning down its anti-Israeli rhetoric in preparation for the meeting. The Soviets routinely describe Israel as Washington's ``main prop'' in the Middle East and accuse it of ``brigandage and plunder'' in the region. And on Sunday, Red Star, the Soviet Armed Forces newspaper, described Israel's latest intervention in Lebanon as an ``escalation in state terrorism by the Tel Aviv leadership.''