JERUSALEM (Jul. 16)
Yevgeny Antipov, head of the three-man Soviet consular delegation that arrived in Israel last Sunday, indicated Thursday that the Soviet diplomatic presence in Israel, however low-level, may not end with his delegation’s departure.
Antipov, who is deputy director of the Soviet Foreign Ministry’s Consular Department, told the Jerusalem Post that the length of his group’s stay in Israel would “depend on how soon we will accomplish our tasks.” He said he was sure they would return to the USSR before their 90-day visas expire.
But he was also sure that they will be replaced by “other officials” of “a consular character.”
Antipov insisted that the sole purpose of their visit, the first in 20 years by an official Soviet group, was to renew the pas1sports of Soviet nationals living in Israel and to make an inventory of Soviet property here.
He also maintained that the description of his group as a “delegation” was a misnomer insofar as it implied diplomatic-political substance. But despite these disclaimers, speculation is rife that there is more to the visit than either Moscow or Jerusalem is ready to acknowledge.
HAVE TEMPORARY OFFICE
The Soviet visitors are staying at the Tel Aviv Hilton Hotel. They have rented a temporary office in suburban Ramat Gan to conduct their business. The newspaper Hadashot quoted Foreign Ministry sources Tuesday to the effect that the Ramat Gan office may become a permanent legation.
Haaretz quoted the Foreign Ministry’s Political Director General, Yossi Beilin, Tuesday as saying, “Only a blind man can ignore the numerous signs indicating an important improvement in the Soviet attitude toward Israel.”
Beilin suggested that the visit by the consular level officials was a test by the Kremlin of Arab reaction to a possible improvement in Soviet-Israel relations. “If they see that they can live with this reaction it is conceivable that they will try to institutionalize the delegation and leave it permanently in Israel, perhaps as a base for a future embassy,” Beilin said, according to Haaretz.
Beilin also made clear that when Israel agreed to grant visas to the Soviet officials, it was with the understanding that a similar Israeli delegation would visit the Soviet Union “within a reasonable period of time.” Antipov told reporters Tuesday that there was no need for a reciprocal visit because there are no Israeli nationals or Israeli property in the USSR.
Some observers have pointed out that the three-man Soviet mission, accompanied by staff, is too large simply to look into the status of Soviet nationals and Soviet property in Israel. Most of the nationals are functionaries of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian women who married Israeli Arabs who were students in the Soviet Union. Most of the property is Church property. In addition to Antipov, an important member of the delegation is Alexei Chestyakov, described as a diplomat with expertise on the Middle East. The third member is Genryk Flachin, who attended a brief meeting with Israeli officials in Helsinki last August.
Chestyakov told the Jerusalem Post Thursday that the USSR did not regard the lack of diplomatic relations with Israel as an obstacle to Soviet participation in an international conference for Middle East peace. He recalled that both countries sent delegations to the peace conference in Geneva in October 1973 after the Yom Kippur War, despite the absence of relations.
Antipov was noncommittal on the subject when questioned by reporters earlier in the week. He would say only that as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council “certainly our role should be taken into consideration.” About the role of a conference, he said, “I believe it is too early to talk about it.”
The Soviet delegation met briefly Tuesday with Yaacov Aviad, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Consular Division, who described their talks as “extremely positive” and “a good beginning.” He did not elaborate.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres urged that the visit “not be blown out of proportion.”
The Soviet visitors have not been disinclined to talk to Israeli reporters since their arrival here. Antipov was interviewed by the Army Radio Tuesday morning. The Army Radio opens its daily news program with greetings by a prominent personality, and on Tuesday it was Antipov who delivered a cheerful “Good Morning, Israel” in Hebrew.
But the visit has not been without its tense moments. Soviet Jewry activists demonstrated outside the Foreign Ministry Tuesday while the Soviets were meeting with officials.
On Thursday evening, a group of 10 demonstrators, some of them relatives of imprisoned Soviet Jewish refuseniks, occupied the lobby of the Tel Aviv Hilton, carrying placards calling for the release of “Prisoners of Zion” and “Let My People Go.” One demonstrator, Vladimir Magaryk, chained himself to a pillar.
Security guards forcibly removed them. An Associated Press photographer covering the event was locked in her room and her film was confiscated.
The Soviet delegates did not seem disturbed by the demonstration. “We are not afraid that something may happen to us. There are demonstrations everywhere,” a spokesman for the delegation said.