NEW YORK (Dec. 26)
A report that an official of the Soviet Embassy in Washington told a representative of a Jewish organization that he believed Moscow will restore diplomatic relations with Israel in February and dramatically increase the number of Jews allowed to leave for Israel was greeted with skepticism and even anger in some quarters by those closely associated with the Soviet Jewry issue.
According to these officials, the report in The New York Times concerning a luncheon meeting a few days ago between an official of the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles and a low-level Soviet official was a compendium of Soviet disinformation and hopeful speculation.
In Jerusalem, Israeli Premier Shimon Peres told the Editor’s Committee of the Daily Press at its annual luncheon today that he knew nothing of the reported meeting in Washington. He said that over the past two or three months there had been undertakings — which he did not describe — by “responsible” Soviet repesentatives in conversations to consider the question of family reunification.
Peres said this was “not a very precise commitment, but it is an interesting one nevertheless.” He said other conversations which took place on a lesser level seemed designed more for image betterment than any practical purpose. The Premier went on to say that Israel would object to Moscow playing a role in Mideast peace making unless it reestablished ties with Israel.
He thus made the issue of Soviet Jewry and the Soviet’s Mideast role conditional upon diplomatic ties with Israel, and not upon a change in policy on Soviet Jewry.
MEETING INITIATED BY THE RUSSIANS
The meeting between the Soviet official, whose identity was not disclosed, and the Wiesenthal Center representative, who the Jewish Telegraphic Agency was told was Martin Mendelsohn, the Center’s legal counsel in Washington, was initiated by the Soviets. Mendelsohn, contacted by the JTA, refused to discuss any aspect of the meeting or Times report.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Center, said the Soviet official was eager to put across two specific points. These were that he “thinks” there will be full diplomatic relations between Israel and the Soviet Union in February, before the Communist Party Congress that month, and that Moscow is going to allow many more Jews to leave than are permitted now.
Soviet Jewish emigration levels are running at far lower levels than during 1979, a peak year for emigration when more than 51,000 Jews were allowed to emigrate. The Soviets, according to reports, are seeking an improvement in relations with Israel as a means for entering the Mideast process.
Failure of the Sovieis to renew diplomatic relations with Israel and the continued harsh treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union have been two of the stated public reasons for Israel’s reluctance to allow the Soviets any role in an international peace conference on the Middle East.
AWAITING SUBSTANTIVE MOVES
There have been in past months speculative reports of imminent decisions to be taken in Moscow leading to an easing of the situation of Soviet Jews and restoration of diplomatic ties. But officials conceded that they await firm indications from Moscow of substantive moves toward Israel and Soviet Jews.
“We can only assume that the Soviets are floating those rumors in an attempt to keep the Soviet Jewry movement here and around the world off balance,” said Alan Pesky, chairman of the Coalition to Free Soviet Jews, the umbrella agency for 85 organizations in the Greater New York area.
“The Soviets have focussed solely on the issue of emigration,” said Pesky, who added that “not a word has been said about the harassment or imprisonment of Jewish activists on trumped-up charges.”
According to the Times, Hier said the Israelis speculated that the Soviet diplomat was unlikely to have spoken as he had with the Jewish representative except under instructions. Hier also said the disclosure could be “a new and significant development.”
Dr. Gerald Margolis, director of the Center, said in a telephone interview with the JTA that he, too, viewed the Soviet pronouncement as “a major signal” since the meeting was initiated by the Soviets. He also said, in response to a question, that “we had no signals over protracted conversations that this information was to be kept in confidence.”