JERUSALEM (Dec. 26)
What had seemed to be steady progress toward normalizing Israeli-Soviet relations appears to have suffered a setback by the last-minute cancellation of Vice Premier Shimon Peres’ planned visit to the Soviet Union.
Peres, who is also finance minister and leader of Israel’s Labor Party, was to have gone to Moscow in the first week of January. His office announced Monday night that the trip has been postponed indefinitely.
According to a spokesman, the decision was made because of insufficient progress in working out economic and commercial agreements with the Soviets in advance of the visit.
Peres had hoped to wrap up an agreement between El Al and Aeroflot, the Israeli and Soviet national airlines, to establish direct flights between Moscow and Tel Aviv.
Direct flights are important to Israel, because they are expected to bring Soviet immigrants here in much larger numbers than at present.
The two carriers reportedly reached an accord four weeks ago, but the Soviet government has failed so far to ratify it.
Peres also hoped to conclude agreements to sell industrial and technological services to the Soviet Union on a large scale.
He had planned to go to Moscow with a group of prominent international business leaders and industrialists.
The group was to include American oil tycoon Armand Hammer, British newspaper magnate Robert Maxwell and Nessim Gaon, the Swiss-based businessman who heads the World Sephardi Federation and was instrumental in arranging the trip while the vice premier was in the United States this fall.
Peres would have been the highest-ranking Israeli ever to visit the Soviet Union.
NO MEETING WITH GORBACHEV
Political observers see the postponement as a major blow to his prestige abroad and his political standing at home.
Speculation is rife that Peres decided against making the trip now because he could not get a definite commitment for a meeting with President Mikhail Gorbachev.
It had been clear during the preparatory talks that Peres regarded such a meeting as essential to the visit and would be loath to embark on the trip without it.
Peres’ political adviser, Dr. Nimrod Novik, had made two trips to the Soviet Union to lay the groundwork for the visit.
A sign that Soviet-Israeli relations were becoming strained over the direct flights issue came Monday, when Transport Minister Moshe Katsav refused to grant landing rights at Ben-Gurion Airport to two Soviet cargo planes that were supposed to pick up some 160 tons of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Katsav was said to be angry over the Kremlin’s failure to ratify the airline agreement.