Tallying impact of Israeli-Soviet Helsinki meeting. Any movement to closer ties expected to be slow
Israel's brief encounter with the Soviet Union in Helsinki seems to have left both sides feeling slightly bruised. In Jerusalem yesterday, Israeli officials tried to put the best face on Monday's 90-minute meeting -- the first of its kind between teams from both nations since Moscow severed ties with Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry official said that, although the meeting did not constitute a ``revolution'' in Israeli-Soviet relations, the fact that it took place at all was seen as an encouraging sign by Israel.
But another Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on condition he not be named, said that Israel's insistence on leading the talks with the issue of Soviet Jewish emigration infuriated the Russians and may have damaged chances for further progress toward restoring relations between the two nations.
This official's assessment seemed to be born out by the statements of a Soviet Foreign Ministry official in Moscow yesterday.
Gennady Gerasimov told a news conference that Israel should not have raised the issue of Soviet Jewry and should not have demanded that an Israeli consular delegation be allowed to visit the Soviet Union if Israel allowed a Soviet delegation to visit here.
Mr. Gerasimov reportedly described the raising of the emigration issue by Israeli negotiators as ``arrogant interference in the internal affairs of the Soviet Union and totally unjustifiable.''
Speaking to reporters, a senior Israeli official predicted that contacts between the two nations would continue. But he said that they may be carried out in secret, and that any progress toward a restoration of diplomatic ties would be slow.
Publicly, Israeli officials are trying to adopt an air of casual interest about an improvement of ties between the two nations.
Israeli newspapers and politicians have attempted to point out the advantages such a restoration would give the Soviet Union. Restoring full diplomatic relations with Israel, the argument runs, could enable the Soviet Union to play a role in a Middle East peace process and improve its relations with the United States.
Privately, officials here have said that the restoration of ties between Israel and the Soviet Union would go far toward rehabilitating Israel's standing in the third world and with East-bloc nations.
``It would make all the difference in the world if the Soviet Union restored ties,'' said one Israeli official. ``All the nations that are hesitating now, that are afraid to act, would feel free to resume full diplomatic relations with us.''
Israel has worked tirelessly -- and with only mixed results -- to repair its standing in the world community since most of the third world and the East bloc severed relations in the wake of either the 1967 or 1973 Arab-Israeli wars. In sub-Sahara Africa, Israel had 29 embassies before the June 1967 war erupted. Today it has six embassies in black African nations. Swaziland, Malawi, and Lesotho -- all nations with diplomatic ties to Israel -- are heavily influenced by South Africa. Israel conducts a great deal of trade with South Africa.
The Israelis have long enjoyed trade and cultural relations with several black African nations, and have pushed hard recently for a full restoration of ties. Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres is scheduled to visit Cameroon next week to attend ceremonies marking the restoration of full diplomatic ties between Cameroon and Israel.
Many Israeli officials contend, however, that the painful process of winning over individual nations could be speeded up if the Soviet Union restored full diplomatic relations. Many third-world and East-bloc nations would immediately follow the Soviet's lead, the Israelis reason.
The problem for any Israeli government contemplating an improvement in ties with the Soviet Union is the fate of what Israel estimates to be 2 million Soviet Jews. There is a powerful lobby -- both in Israel and in the US -- for Soviet Jews seeking to emigrate. Israel cannot afford to be seen as ``soft'' on that issue.
But one senior Foreign Ministry official expressed dismay over Israel's insistence on putting the issue of Soviet Jewry at the top of the agenda for the Helsinki talks.
``The extreme right wing in Israel forced the government to take a position that the Soviets didn't like,'' the diplomat said. ``And the Soviets, in turn, decided to teach Israel a lesson in manners.''
Whether the Soviet Union still intends to send a team here to inventory Soviet property and update files on Soviet citizens is unclear. The next move, according to the Israelis, is up to the Soviet Union.