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Soviets Reported to Retract Threat to Halt Emigration

A report that the Soviet Union has “retracted” a threat by President Mikhail Gorbachev to halt Jewish emigration to Israel has been welcomed by American Jewish leaders.

But at least one expressed the wish that the news had come officially from Moscow instead of from an anonymous U.S. official.

“We welcome the report that the Soviet Union will not surrender to Arab pressure and will not suspend Jewish emigration to Israel,” said Seymour Reich, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Martin Wenick, executive director of the National Conference for Soviet Jewry, said, “I welcome the news,” but “it would be even more help if the Soviets themselves would state publicly that it wasn’t their intention to restrict Jewish emigration.”

Reich and Wenick were referring to an Associated Press report Wednesday from Turnberry, Scotland, which said that “the Soviet Union has retracted what appeared to be a threat by President Mikhail Gorbachev to suspend Jewish emigration to Israel.”

The report attributed the information to a senior U.S. official, who briefed reporters on condition that he not be identified.

The official said U.S. Secretary of State James Baker on Tuesday told Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze that he was concerned about a statement on Jewish emigration Gorbachev made Sunday at a joint news conference with President Bush in Washington.

Baker and Shevardnadze were in Copenhagen following the summit, attending a meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission.

NO PLAN TO CHANGE APPROACH

Shevardnadze told Baker the Soviets “had no plan to change their approach, they are committed to that,” the official said.

He said Shevardnadze advised Baker that the Israeli government would be informed that emigration policy was not being altered, but did not say how that would be done, since the Soviets have no formal diplomatic relations with Israel.

Reich and Wenick both praised the American response.

“We appreciate the Bush administration’s position, both in public statements and in private representations, in support of the unconditional right of Soviet Jews to emigrate,” Reich said.

Wenick said, “It is clear the administration was most disturbed” by what Gorbachev said.

Speaking in response to questions from reporters, the Soviet leader said that “as long as no assurances” are given by Israel that Soviet Jews will not be settled in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Moscow may have to “postpone issuing the permits for exit.”

Gorbachev had said, “The Soviet Union is now being bombarded with a lot of criticism from the Arab countries” on the emigration issue.

His statement drew a defiant response from Israel’s caretaker prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, and a flood of statistics from Jerusalem that said only a fraction of I percent of the arriving Soviet Jews settle in the disputed territories.

Shamir said Jews coming to Israel can settle wherever they please but insisted there was no official policy to populate the territories with Soviet Jews.

Reich said the Soviet Union had been bowing to Arab pressure, which aimed at ending all Jewish immigration to Israel.

He said, “Its decision to reject Arab protests” kept the Soviet Union in conformity with “a whole series of international agreements to which it is a signatory–including the Helsinki Final Act–that guarantee the right of emigration as a fundamental human right.”

Wenick also observed that Soviet restrictions on Jewish emigration “would put them in violation of their international obligations.”

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