WASHINGTON (Feb. 5)
Secretary of State James Baker is carrying to Moscow this week a letter signed by U.S. senators that asks Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to permit Jews to leave the Soviet Union on direct flights to Israel.
Baker is expected to discuss the subject of direct flights during his meetings with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze on Wednesday and Thursday. The secretary of state is to meet with Gorbachev on Friday.
White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, speaking Monday at an American Israel Public Affairs Committee luncheon at the Israeli Embassy, said it would be appropriate for Baker to raise the direct flights issue while in Moscow, according to an Israeli official present.
The matter is especially urgent now, because thousands of Soviet Jews who have received permission to emigrate are unable to leave due to a shortage of flights out of the country.
According to the Israeli official, Soviet authorities issued about 6,000 exit visas for Jews in January. But about 15,000 to 20,000 Jews who want to leave the Soviet Union are currently “backed up,” waiting to get out.
In New York, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry announced Monday that a total of 4,713 Jews left the Soviet Union on Israeli visas in January. A small number also emigrated on U.S. visas, but that number is not yet available from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
Of those who left on Israeli visas, 4,585, or an unprecedented 97 percent, went to Israel, representing a continuation of the trend toward large-scale aliyah that began in December.
HELD UP FOR ‘POLITICAL’ REASONS
But Israeli officials say the number of Soviet Jews reaching Israel per month could be significantly larger if direct flights were permitted.
An agreement to begin direct air service between Moscow and Tel Aviv was signed in December by representatives of the Soviet airlines Aeroflot and El Al Israel Airlines.
The accord was supposed to be implemented on Jan. 1, but “no actions related to the agreement have been taken,” said the Senate letter, initiated by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and signed by Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) and Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.).
The letter is being circulated to members of the Senate and by Monday afternoon had been signed by 47 of the 100 senators.
The senators wrote that if the agreement is implemented, “two, or perhaps even more, 747 flights per day can be arranged” between the Soviet Union and Israel.
A similar letter, signed by 37 members of the House of Representatives, was sent to Baker on Feb. 1.
That letter, organized by Reps. Edward Feighan (D-Ohio) and Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), called it “disturbing that this purely commercial agreement has been held up due to political considerations.”
One political consideration was revealed Monday by The New York Times, which quoted a Soviet official visiting Tunisia as saying the Soviets have no intention of allowing direct flights.
The official, Deputy Foreign Minister Gennadi Tarasov, said his government was irritated at Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir for recently suggesting indirectly that Israel needs to keep the West Bank and Gaza Strip for resettling Soviet Jews.
The Israeli official here acknowledged that Tarasov’s reported comment appears to reflect Soviet thinking. The Soviets, the official said, “referred to the prime minister’s statement, and so it may be that they feel embarrassed for the Arabs.”
But the official maintained that “the real Arab objection is aliyah to Israel in general.”