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News Analysis: U.S. Not As Eager to Involve Soviets in Peace Process As Gorbachev Claims

Mikhail Gorbachev’s statement Sunday that the United States was dropping its longstanding opposition to Soviet participation in the Middle East peace process appears to be less than meets the eye.

The Soviet leader was almost kittenish in reporting at a joint news conference with President Bush in Helsinki, Finland, that Bush had agreed the Soviets have an important role to play in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The concern this caused among some Israelis and supporters of Israel in the United States was heightened by a New York Times story Tuesday that not only had the United States reversed its policy, but it might drop its opposition to an international conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But Bush administration officials were quick to provide reassurances that there had been no change in U.S. policy.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the only agreement Bush and Gorbachev reached was that once the Persian Gulf crisis was resolved, they would ask their foreign ministers “to work with countries in the region and outside it to develop regional security structures and measures to promote peace and stability.”

How this would be done has not yet been decided, Fitzwater said.

A senior State Department official stressed that the United States is a long way from any joint effort with the Soviet Union on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nothing will happen until the U.S.-led international effort to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait succeeds, the official told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

NO CHANGE ON INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE

Bush has rejected a Soviet proposal that an international conference be convened both to resolve the Gulf crisis and to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But the United States also has not agreed to a separate international conference on the Palestinian issue, the State Department official maintained, contrary to a report in the Times that Bush had opened the door to such a conference.

The official repeated the longstanding U.S. position that an international conference could be useful “under certain circumstances,” but not until it has exhausted efforts to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

The one-day Helsinki summit was seen as chiefly aimed at assuring Soviet support for the economic sanctions and blockade ordered by the U.N. Security Council against Iraq.

The official stressed that a Soviet role in the Middle East peace process would not even be an issue until the Gulf crisis is resolved successfully, and that could be several months away.

Left unsaid is that the U.S. effort to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue is also on hold until the Gulf crisis is over and it becomes clearer what kind of Middle East has been left in its wake.

The Bush administration has accepted the Reagan administration’s position that the Soviet Union could be an acceptable partner to the Middle East process if it proved it was playing a responsible role in the region. Should the Soviets stay the course in putting pressure on Iraq, Moscow would be seen by the United States as acting responsibly.

SOVIET-ISRAELI TALKS RAISE HOPES

But the administration has said that the Soviets must also meet certain conditions, the most important being the restoration of diplomatic relations severed by Moscow during the 1967 Six-Day War.

The Soviet Union has said it will not restore diplomatic relations until the Palestinian issue is resolved. But relations between Israel and the Soviet Union have been improving in recent years.

An Israeli Foreign Ministry delegation left for Moscow on Wednesday and was scheduled to hold talks Friday with Soviet Foreign Ministry officials.

There has been speculation that the talks could pave the way for a restoration of full relations. But Israeli officials say the purpose of the talks is to make arrangements for a meeting at the U.N. General Assembly between Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and his Israeli counterpart, David Levy.

Levy, just back from a visit to the United States, said Wednesday that Moscow would be a “welcome partner” for the Middle East peace process if it put pressure on Arab states to make peace with Israel.

He said he hoped the Soviets would also cease supplying arms to Arab states hostile to Israel.

But Eliahu Ben-Elissar, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, is less sanguine about the Soviets getting involved with the United States in the peace process.

“Whenever those two powers cooperated, it was at the expense of Israel,” he said at an American Jewish Congress symposium here Monday.

Ben-Elissar said the Soviet Union is a Middle East power, but “I don’t see Russian and American policy coinciding” in the region.

In New York, the American Jewish Congress issued a statement Tuesday outlining suggested conditions for any Soviet involvement in the peace process.

They included restoration of relations with Israel, recognition that the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be linked to the Persian Gulf crisis and “some indication that the Soviet Union has freed itself” of its practice of offering “mechanical, automatic and predictable support for the Arab position on any and all issues relating to Israel.”

(JTA correspondent David Landau in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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