WASHINGTON (Feb. 11)
Before leaving Moscow on Saturday, Secretary of State James Baker rejected a Soviet proposal that the two superpowers issue a joint statement condemning any Israeli attempt to resettle Soviet Jews in the West Bank.
“We do not think it is productive for us to join together in a condemnation of a strong and important ally of the United States, Israel,” Baker said at a midnight news conference Saturday, after two days of talks with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.
Both Washington and Moscow have issued statements in recent weeks criticizing any resettlement of Soviet Jews in the West Bank as an obstacle to peace.
But the Soviet Union apparently sought a joint statement, because it had been under strong criticism from the Arab countries for allowing an increasing number of Soviet Jews to emigrate.
In an apparent effort to ease Arab concerns, Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov told a news conference last Thursday that Baker told Shevardnadze the United States would allow an additional 10,000 to 20,000 Jews to enter the United States as refugees.
The United States has a quota of 50,000 refugees from the Soviet Union and no longer considers Soviet Jews who emigrate on Israeli visas as potential candidates for refugee status.
As a result, Israel has replaced the United States as the destination of first resort for most Soviet emigrants. Last month, 97 percent immigrated to Israel, compared to 41 percent in December and 16 percent the month before.
BUSH CALLS FOR DIRECT FLIGHTS
This reversal has pleased Israel, which had long wanted the United States to ensure that Soviet Jews who emigrated on visas to Israel actually ended up there.
Therefore, Gerasimov’s announcement that the United States might now admit up to 20,000 more Soviet Jews than expected came as a rude shock to Israeli officials.
American Jewish leaders sought a clarification from Washington on Friday, but the State Department had no immediate comment on Gerasimov’s statement.
But the Jewish leaders have now come to the conclusion that nothing new has been proposed by Baker.
Phillip Saperia, assistant executive vice president of the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, said he believes the additional number cited by Gerasimov was a reference to the Bush administration’s earlier proposal to admit additional Soviet Jews without government funding, either under the attorney general’s parole authority or under a proposed law creating a new status of immigrants.
Saperia said about 20,000 Soviet Jews are still in transit centers outside Rome, and all of them should be processed by June. They will be counted as part of the 50,000 quota.
While in Moscow, Baker was to have expressed U.S. concern to Gorbachev about reports of growing anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. The matter did not come up at the Saturday night news conference.
Nor was it clear whether Baker had urged that the Soviets institute direct flights for Soviet Jews between Moscow and Israel.
El Al and Aeroflot have agreed to such flights, but the Soviet government has not yet implemented the agreement.
Baker brought with him to Moscow a letter to Gorbachev, signed by all 100 senators, urging that the flights begin.
President Bush last week publicly called for direct flights as evidence the Soviet Union wants to play a constructive role in the Middle East peace process.
One signal “would be to assist more through transportation, direct flights for Soviet Jews wishing to leave the Soviet Union to go to Israel,” the president said in response to a question after a Feb. 7 speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.
Bush also said it would “be helpful” if Moscow would “normalize diplomatic relations with the State of Israel.”