WASHINGTON (Apr. 8)
Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze ended three days of talks with Secretary of State James Baker on Friday by pulling back the hand he appeared to have offered Israel.
On the issues of the Middle East peace process, direct flights from Moscow to Tel Aviv and the restoration of diplomatic relations with Israel, Shevardnadze left Washington with the Soviet position unchanged.
The three issues were discussed by Baker and Shevardnadze, although their talks focused on arms control and the situation in Lithuania, as it did when Shevardnadze met with President Bush for two hours Friday at the White House.
During the meetings, it was announced that Bush would host Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for their second summit May 30 to June 3. Baker and Shevardnadze will meet once again before the summit, this time in Moscow from May 16 to 19.
On the Middle East, Shevardnadze at first seemed to be supporting Baker’s efforts to bring about a dialogue between Israel and Palestinians.
An Israeli-Palestinian dialogue "is in process, and I believe it is useful," he said at a news conference at the State Department late Friday afternoon. He did not mention the Palestine Liberation Organization.
BAKER SUGGESTS SEEKING ASSURANCES
But then Shevardnadze said that the peace process could only be advanced within the framework of an international conference under the auspices of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council: the United States, Soviet Union, France, Britain and the People’s Republic of China. Israel opposes such a conference.
Shevardnadze also said that the U.N. secretary-general should appoint "a special representative for the Middle East."
At a separate news conference after Shevardnadze spoke, Baker rejected the proposal.
"I do not think the time is appropriate for that," the secretary of state said. "I do not think that exercise would be productive."
Baker said he told Shevardnadze that "we arc at a somewhat sensitive time with respect to the possibility of a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. I don’t think that right now we ought to divert attention or efforts from the possibility of getting that dialogue started."
But it was on the issue of direct flights that the Soviets seemed to be backing off from what appeared to be positive movement during the three days of talks.
Baker revealed Friday that it was he who had suggested that the Soviets allow direct flights to Israel in exchange for assurances from Israel that Soviet Jews would not settle in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.
"We haven’t asked Israel for any assurances with respect to Soviet immigration, because we support Soviet immigration unqualifiedly and unconditionally," the secretary said.
But when the Soviets were pressed on direct flights, Baker said Shevardnadze "said they could not lighten up on Soviet emigration in the face of the possibility that some of the immigrants would go to the occupied territory."
TAKES STAND ON EAST JERUSALEM
Baker said the Soviets were asked "if they had considered approaching Israel with respect to the possibility of assurances. They said they hadn’t, but they thought it was an idea that they would like to consider," he reported.
After his meeting with Bush, Shevardnadze had told reporters, gathered under pouring rain in the White house driveway, that the "one problem" to allowing direct flights is "the settlement of the Jews in the occupied territories." He added that Moscow considers East Jerusalem part of those territories.
But at his news conference later, he said that Soviets not only want these assurances, but evidence by Israel of "good faith compliance with decisions of the United Nations."
Even if Shevardnadze had only sought assurances on the settlement of immigrants in the territories, it is doubtful that any Israeli government could accept such a request.
The proposal is "ridiculous," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. He said the Kremlin was "creating conditions which Israel cannot possibly accept."
At a White House ceremony marking Passover last Wednesday, Bush pledged "to continue to do everything necessary to make it possible for Soviet Jews to get to Israel."
He added that this included "continuing to press for direct and indirect flights."
At his news conference Friday, Baker indicated that some progress was made on the general issue of Jewish emigration.
He said the United States was making "headway on our objective of resolving the refusenik cases, facilitating the exit of Soviet Jews and building a new agenda in the area, an agenda that emphasizes the rule of law." He gave no details.
Baker said there also was discussion on reaching a trade agreement to be signed at the Bush-Gorbachev summit. "We discussed how this would necessitate action on immigration legislation," Baker said.
But it is difficult to see how this could be accomplished since the summit is to be held, at Gorbachev’s request, several weeks earlier than expected.
U.S.-Soviet trade talks have been going on since Bush and Gorbachev met in Malta last December. But a trade agreement could not go into effect unless the United States waives sanctions contained in the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which links most-favored-nation trade benefits for the Soviet Union with increasing emigration.
At the Malta summit, the Bush administration made clear that the president would consider a one-year waiver of Jackson-Vanik sanctions only if the Soviets adopted much-stalled legislation reforming their emigration policy, followed by an unspecified period in which the law could be seen working.
The latest prediction for the Soviets to adopt the legislation is sometime this summer.
The possibility of a restoration of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Israel, which Moscow severed in 1967, was raised last Thursday. But the following day, Shevardnadze said that this was an issue that depended on a resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict.
He pointed out that Israel and the Soviet Union already had consular relations. When asked if this would be upgraded to full diplomatic relations, he replied, "We’ll see."