WASHINGTON (Jun. 3)
American Jewish leaders have expressed satisfaction with President Bush’s pledge that he will not ask Congress to ratify a trade agreement he signed Friday with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev until Moscow adopts promised emigration reform legislation.
But Jewish leaders were alarmed by Gorbachev’s threat Sunday to cut off Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union unless Israel guarantees that immigrants bound for Israel will not be allowed to settle in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.
Gorbachev issued his surprise threat during a joint news conference with Bush at the White House, which concluded their four days of talks.
“As long as no assurances” are given by Israel that Soviet Jews will not be settled in the territories, the Kremlin may have to “postpone issuing the permits for exit,” Gorbachev said in response to a question from reporters.
“The Soviet Union is now being bombarded with a lot of criticism from the Arab countries” as well as from some people within the Soviet Union on the emigration issue, Gorbachev said.
He noted that he recently met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Syrian President Hafez Assad, both of whom raised the question of Israeli guarantees “in acute terms.”
Both Bush, and Secretary of States James Baker, who appeared on television after the White House news conference, said the United States continues to oppose the establishment or enhancement of Jewish settlements in the territories.
“But we haven’t linked the two in the way that President Gorbachev was suggesting,” Baker said on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press.”
“We unconditionally support the concept of Soviet Jewish emigration,” Baker stressed.
He said he was not disturbed by the Gorbachev threat, since the Soviets asked for Israeli guarantees during his visit to Moscow in May. Gorbachev did not raise the issue during the summit, Baker said.
ISRAEL REACTS TO THREAT
In Israel, Absorption Minister Yitzhak Peretz reacted to Gorbachev’s threat by suggesting that Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir invite the Soviet leader to Israel to learn the true situation.
Gorbachev could tour the administered territories and “see with his own eyes” that Israel “has no policy of directing or encouraging immigrants to go to these territories,” Peretz said.
Construction and Housing Minister David Levy said there would be “clarifications” in which Israel would “explain ourselves so that our brothers in the USSR shall not be hostages to political processes.”
But Levy, who holds the rank of deputy premier, would not say explicitly whether Israel would provide Gorbachev with the guarantees he is seeking.
Jewish groups in the United States pointed out that fewer than 2 percent of Soviet immigrants have settled in the territories.
Martin Wenick, executive director of the National Conference of Soviet Jewry, said it was a “canard” to say Soviet Jews were settling in the territories in large numbers.
Wenick said he was “deeply disturbed” by Gorbachev’s linkage of emigration to the settlement issue. He said that if the Soviets stopped emigration, it would be a violation of international human rights agreements that the Soviets have signed, including the Helsinki Accords.
The Union of Councils for Soviet Jews also maintained it is not Israel’s policy to “actively channel Jews to the West Bank.”
“Gorbachev should not curtail the basic human right of free emigration based on the destination of Soviet Jews,” a spokeswoman for the group said.
Sholom Comay, president of the American Jewish Committee, said his group was “distressed” by Gorbachev’s “implied threat to curtail immigration of Soviet Jews.”
He urged the administration to “make clear its determination that Soviet Jewish immigration must continue.”
Rabbi Avraham Weiss, national chairman of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, called Gorbachev’s threat “absolutely despicable.”
TRADE AGREEMENT IS SURPRISE
While displeased with Gorbachev, the Soviet Jewry groups, except for SSSJ, were pleased with Bush’s stance on the trade agreement, even though he had previously indicated he would not sign it until the Soviets adopt the long promised law codifying its more liberal emigration policies.
They were also pleased that Bush devoted a great deal of time during the summit to the issues of concern to Soviet Jews, including anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, the need for direct flights between Moscow and Israel, and the cases of long-term refuseniks still being denied exit visas.
The signing of the trade agreement came as a surprise during Friday evening’s signing of various agreements by Bush and Gorbachev at the White House.
Bush announced the move by saying, “President Gorbachev and I are also signing a commercial agreement and are looking forward to the passage of a Soviet emigration law.”
The new law was supposed to have been adopted by the Supreme Soviet before the summit. During the summit, Soviet officials expressed irritation with U.S. pressure for the law.
Arkady Maslennikov, Gorbachev’s spokesman, said there was “resentment” that another country was trying to dictate to the Soviet parliament.
Nevertheless, Maslennikov said the Supreme Soviet is “very serious about the law,” which he said has been delayed because of the legislature’s extremely busy schedule.
Bush said the law must be adopted before he is willing to waive sanctions contained in the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the U.S. Trade Act, which links trade benefits to improved performance on emigration.
Bush repeatedly insisted that the trade agreement was not linked to the Soviet Union ending its economic sanctions against Lithuania.
But Baker conceded that the Senate would be highly unlikely to ratify the agreement if the situation in Lithuania had not improved.
“We are pleased that the administration has held fast to the principle of Jackson-Vanik and is keeping its promise to hold out for the emigration law,” the Union of Councils said.
The National Conference said it was less concerned with the emigration law than that the Soviets continue the high level of Jewish emigration, make progress on the cases of long-term refuseniks and place strict limits on the application of “state secrets” in denying visas.
But Weiss of the SSSJ said the trade agreement should not have been signed until the Soviets had adopted a satisfactory emigration law and proved for a full year that it was being implemented in good faith.
AGREED TO SPEAK OUT ON ANTI-SEMITISM
Bush and Gorbachev also discussed the problem of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union during the informal talks Saturday at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland. According to White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, the two leaders “agreed to speak out against prejudice and any trends toward anti-Semitism.”
Fitzwater also said Bush spoke to Gorbachev about the cases of various long-term refuseniks, and Gorbachev replied that “he was still working to resolve them.”
The National Conference said it trusted that Gorbachev “will follow though” on this pledge and will also make a “forceful, unequivocal condemnation” of anti-Semitism, as Bush did in January during his State of the Union address.
The Union of Councils likewise praised Bush for bringing up the issues of anti-Semitism.
But Weiss said he was “disappointed” that Soviet Jewry did not play a more central role in the summit.
He was particularly incensed that the Bush administration did not put more pressure on the Soviets to institute direct flights between Moscow and Israel. He said that because of the Soviet economic chaos, such pressure would work.
Weiss said it was “unacceptable and unpardonable” the way Jews and other Americans have made a hero of Gorbachev, whom he called a dictator. He said Jews should be in the streets by the thousands supporting Soviet Jews, because they are in danger.
(JTA correspondent David Landau in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)