Report of Meeting Between Soviet, Israeli Envoys Causes Consternation and Embarrassment in Israel

Israel was perturbed and embarrassed over the weekend by the leaked report to the local media of a meeting in Paris between the Israeli and Soviet Ambassadors to France.

The State-owned Israel Radio said Friday that the two envoys, Ovadia Sofer of Israel and Youli Vorontsov of the USSR, had discussed the possible restoration of diplomatic ties between Israel and the Soviet Union, broken by Moscow 18 years ago during the Six-Day War.

Premier Shimon Peres flatly refused to discuss the report at today’s weekly Cabinet meeting. “That is not on the agenda,” Peres said when the subject was raised by Minister-Without-Portfolio Yigael Hurwitz. It was understood nevertheless that the matter would be dealt with, if at all, at a secret meeting of the Inner Cabinet which consists of five senior ministers of the Labor Party and five of Likud.

PERES, SHAMIR AGHAST AT THE LEAK

Peres and Deputy Premier and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir were said to be aghast at the leak. Officials expressed hope that the damage could be limited and would not impair the continued dialogue with the Soviets. The Foreign Ministry confirmed that the meeting did take place but put it in the context of other such contacts which it said had been taking place from time to time and obviously could not be publicized.

But considerable doubt was cast on what Israel Radio claimed was discussed between Sofer and Vorontsov. According to Friday’s report, the Soviet envoy said his government was prepared to consider the restoration of diplomatic ties with Israel if Israel ceased what the Kremlin considers anti-Soviet propaganda and prevails on Jews in the West to do like-wise.

In addition, Israel Radio said, the Soviets would be willing to allow more Jews to emigrate to Israel but would insist that Israel return the Golan Heights, captured in the Six-Day War, to Syria; or at least part of the Heights if Syria in the course of negotiations agreed to cede some of that territory to Israel.

The immediate reaction from Moscow was to categorically deny such conditions were offered. Israel Radio said the meeting took place at the Paris home of Israeli musician Daniel Barenboim. Galei Zahal, the Israel Defense Force radio, confirmed the meeting and said it had been at Soviet initiative.

But Shlomo Avineri, a former Director General of the Foreign Ministry said in the course of an English-language news program here yesterday that the meeting “obviously was not initiated by the Soviets.”

He said he thought Israel should learn a diplomatic lesson, to wit, to avoid “rushing to leak information immediately after secret contacts.”

Aides to both Peres and Shamir seemed to have various ideas as to where responsibility for the leak lies and there was talk today of a full-scale inquiry by the security service.

Foreign Ministry sources appeared deeply angered. They said that while Ambassador Sofer was not himself suspected of leaking his cable to Jerusalem–about the meeting — he was to be faulted for failing to properly classify the cable with the result that it was widely disseminated within the Ministry and among other government departments.

One Foreign Ministry source remarked, “Sofer was virtually inviting a leak.” There was also considerable speculation within the Foreign Ministry and elsewhere about the accuracy of Sofer’s report.

SPECULATION AND ANALYSIS ABOUND

The version broadcast by Israel Radio inevitably created a media sensation here and triggered lengthy public speculation and analysis by assorted Kremlinologists, Sovietologists and others considered experts on Soviet policy and diplomacy.

Much of the political community considered the Paris meeting significant though there were differences over how much so. Seasoned Kremlin watchers professed to have seen some advance clues. They have noted for some weeks a sharp, almost dramatic decrease in the anti-Israel, anti-Semitic propaganda published inside Russia and emanating from Russia.

This has been linked to the recent change in leadership. Baruch Hazan, a leading Kremlinologist here, predicted an increasingly pragmatic Soviet foreign policy under the regime of Mikahil Gorbachev. He said relations with Israel and Middle East policy would be one area where this change would be articulated.

But Hazan saw no imminent resumption of diplomatic ties. He predicted that as a first step, one or two Soviet bloc countries would resume relations with Israel. He thought Hungary and Bulgaria the likely candidates.

Avineri said he wouldn’t be surprised if the new Soviet leadership re-thought previous policies. He said that if the reports so far leaked are true, Moscow may now be thinking in terms of a “package deal” in which it would gain something in return for diplomatic ties with Israel.

According to Prof. Amnon Sela, another Russia expert, the Paris encounter was timed just as the Palestinians, and possibly Syria, “seem to be winking towards Washington.” This apparently worried and concerned the Soviets, Sela suggested.

POSSIBLE SIGNAL TO WASHINGTON

Such linkage was also cited here as an explanation for the leak. Some observers thought that someone in the government establishment tried in that way to signal Washington against opening a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization through PLO-backed members of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

Washington’s reaction to reports of the Paris meeting was bland and indirect. “Our position has always been that we would welcome any improvement in relations between Israel and other countries,” Robert Smalley, a State Department spokesman, said Friday.

He noted at the same time that Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union has dropped to “the lowest level in years.” The U.S. position has always been that “the USSR, in fulfillment of its existing obligations, should allow all those who wish to emigrate to do so,” Smalley said. Speculations were contingent on the accuracy of the Israel Radio report and of its apparent source, the cable Ambassador Sofer transmitted to Jerusalem.

One retired veteran diplomat, Gideon Rafael, told reporters today that the cable was “full of improbabilities.” He stressed that in reporting discussions on the ambassadorial level between two countries — where no stenographer is present — “it is important to recount precisely who said what.” He challenged the report on many counts.

Rafael, a former Director General of the Foreign Ministry and an Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations and to the United Kingdom, said the report that the Soviet envoy spoke of a package deal was incongruous. The Soviets, Rafael said, never speak of package deals, they speak of reciprocity.

Another improbability, he said, was the report that the Russian envoy had agreed, when challenged by Sofer, that he had omitted reference to the Palestinian issue deliberately in his exposition of Soviet-Israeli relations.

INTERVIEW WITH SOVIET JOURNALIST

Israel Radio followed up its Friday report with a telephone interview yesterday with Viktor Lewis, a Soviet journalist, Jewish by birth, who is said to have close contacts among top Kremlin sources. Lewis has visited Israel frequently and has been used by the media here as a source of information about Soviet policies.

He is also considered by some to be a floater of trial balloons. New immigrants from Russia claim he is a Soviet intelligence agent whose assisgnment is to propagate disinformation.

The interview with Lewis was broadcast before Moscow’s official denial of the details of the reported Paris contact was released. In what sounded like a prepared statement, Lewis said that in Moscow “officially, no one has yet made any comments on a Soviet-Israeli meeting and obviously there are no grounds to expect this to herald an immediate restoration of diplomatic relations.”

He said, however, that the meeting will “most likely lead to occasional consultations on some Middle Eastern problems in general which will be one of the items on the agenda of this autumn’s top level meeting” between Gorbachev and President Reagan and Gorbachev’s talks with President Francois Mitterrand of France.

Lewis added: “In the course of the long years without diplomatic relations, there have been a number of meetings between former Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and different Israeli politicians in New York. So obviously, the new Foreign Minister, Mr. Eduard Shervadnadze, would like to give an impression that no stone has been left unturned in preparing himself and Mr. Gorbachev for their meetings where the Middle East is almost certain to be among the subjects for discussion.”

Nonetheless, some Israelis see the Paris contact as more significant than previous contacts. On July 15, Peres told World Jewish Congress president Edgar Bronfman that “Israel was seriously interested in reopening diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union” and indicated that the new Soviet leadership, under Gorbachev, could open the way for “a dialogue on all subjects with the Russians.”

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