Havel Begins Israel Visit Amid Talk of Czech Way Station for Soviet Jews

President Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia began his three-day official visit to Israel on Wednesday, amid expectations of close cultural and political relations developing between the two countries.

A strong possibility was said to exist that Czechoslovakia would serve as a way station for Soviet Jews immigrating to Israel.

Havel was welcomed by President Chaim Herzog in ceremonies at the Rose Garden, near the Knesset.

“You are among friends,” Herzog told the playwright, who became president of his country in January, after it ended more than 40 years of Communist rule.

“The people of Israel welcome you and your delegation with open arms, as the dark clouds of despair, despotism and tragedy recede from the skies of Czechoslovakia,” he said.

One of Havel’s first commitments when he took office was the restoration of diplomatic relations with Israel.

That pledge was honored Feb. 9, when Czechoslovakia became the second Eastern European country, after Hungary, to resume diplomatic ties with Israel, broken in 1967.

Some aspects of the new relationship were discussed during visits to Prague earlier this year by Foreign Minister Moshe Arens and Shimon Peres, who was vice premier and finance minister in the now defunet Likud-Labor government.

Arens said Wednesday that he expected Israeli-Czech “relations to deepen in the coming years” and “to become close, friendly and maybe even special.”

But he refused to identify the topics that will be discussed during Havel’s visit.

AGREEMENT ON ARTIFACTS

There has been speculation that Czechoslovakia could be a transit point where Jews from the Soviet Union would board direct flights to Israel.

Havel is reported to have told the visiting Israeli minister for religious affairs, Zevulun Hammer, who was in Prague a few days ago, that a final agreement on that awaits only the completion of security measures.

Agreement already has been reached on the great treasures of Judaica still in Czechoslovakia, where Jews have lived for nearly 1,000 years.

Israeli officials have expressed hope that some of those treasures will be transferred to Israel on loan, to be catalogued and displayed to a wider audience.

Havel, who is accompanied by his foreign minister, Jiri Dienstbier, another former dissident, is scheduled to meet with members of the caretaker government, including acting Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and with Peres.

Havel will visit the Israel Muscum and the Diaspora Muscum, and is expected to make an appearance at the Congress of Czechoslovak Jews in Israel, to be held in Jerusalem.

He may also visit Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk near Haifa, a kibbutz established mainly by Czech Jews and named for Czechoslovakia’s first president, Tomas Masaryk.

Havel is the first Czechoslovak chief of state to visit Israel. Masaryk visited Palestine in 1928.

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