Behind the Headlines: Soviets Hope Initiative on Iraq Will Buy Them Seat at Peace Table

The Soviet Union, which has long sought to be part of the process of finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, believes its diplomatic effort to convince Saddam Hussein to pull out of Kuwait is its ticket for admission.

The Soviet Union continues to be part of the anti-Iraq coalition despite its opposition to the use of force, Viacheslav Matouzov, the Soviet Embassy’s Middle East expert, told a group of reporters here Monday.

Matouzov said the Soviet opposed the war against Iraq, which began Jan. 17, because they feared it would ignite a larger Arab-Israeli war.

He said the Soviets now fear that if the right political solution is not reached at the end of the Persian Gulf war, it could exacerbate the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Matouzov, who was chief of Palestinian and Lebanese affairs in the international department of the Communist Party Central Committee from 1975 to 1989, was responding to questions at a luncheon meetings of the Overseas Writers Club, an organization of diplomatic correspondents.

He insisted that the Soviet Union has to be part of any Middle East peace, because as a neighbor of countries in that region, it is affected by what happens there.

“We are part of this process. We can’t avoid this responsibility of ours,” Matouzov said.

He observed that even Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir now believes the Soviet Union should be involved in a peace settlement.

NOW PLAYING A ‘POSITIVE ROLE’

While the United States has sought to keep the Soviet Union out of the Middle East since the end of World War II, this attitude is changing, Secretary of State James Baker indicated Sunday.

Up to now, the Soviets have played “a negative role” in the Middle East, Baker said on ABC-TV’s “This Week with David Brinkley.”

“Ever since the 3rd of August, when they stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States — at least with respect to the Gulf crisis — they have played a positive role,” the secretary said.

By playing a positive role, the Soviet can “contribute significantly to the resolution” of some of the problems in the Middle East, he said.

Baker and President Bush have refused to condemn Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev publicly for his initiative last week to end the fighting, which some see as an attempt to play up the Soviets as a friend of the Arabs.

While privately peeved, the Bush administration has sought to bolster Gorbachev’s shaky government and to keep the Soviets in the anti-Iraq coalition.

That is also one explanation given for the statement issued by Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh after a Jan. 29 meeting in Washington, in which they said that after the Gulf war there would be “mutual U.S.-Soviet efforts to promote Arab-Israeli peace and regional stability.”

But Matouzov made clear Monday that the Soviet Union still believes the way to this is an international peace conference, to include the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

Israel is adamantly opposed to such a conference. The Bush administration has said it prefers direct negotiations but, if those fail, it could support such a conference at “an appropriate time.”

The administration has fought all efforts to link such a conference with the Persian Gulf crisis, while the Soviet initially supported Saddam Hussein’s efforts to make such a conference a condition for his withdrawal from Kuwait.

NO BREAK IN TIES WITH PLO

Matouzov stressed that the Soviet Union is flexible about a conference and does not demand it. But Moscow believes it is necessary, because any agreements reached between Israel and the Arabs will require guarantees.

“Who gives the guarantees if not the international community?” the Soviet official asked.

Matouzov stressed that an international conference would provide the framework for Israel to engage in bilateral negotiations with its Arab neighbors. This appears to be a move toward the U.S. position, which has been that if such a conference were held, it could not dictate or veto agreements reached through direct negotiations.

Matouzov suggested that an international conference could be a “fine opportunity to restore full diplomatic relations” between the Soviet Union and Israel.

He observed that relations have been gradually improving and that consulates were opened in Moscow and Tel Aviv in January.

Although the Soviet were the leading arms supplier to Iraq, Matouzov said Moscow wants not only to stop the “arms supply to this very hot region of the world,” but also to reduce existing arms, especially weapons of mass destruction.

But Matouzov rejected the suggestion that Moscow would break relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization and its leader, Yasir Arafat, because of their support for Saddam Hussein. He said countries such as Yemen and Jordan have supported Hussein, and there is no question of breaking relations with them.

Matouzov said the Soviet Union, like the United States, opposes Jewish settlement in the West Bank, which “we consider Palestinian soil.”

But he rejected Arab criticism of the Soviet government for allowing so many Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel.

“Anyone who wants to leave the Soviet Union can decide where he is going,” he said. “If he is going to Israel, it is not for the Soviet Union to judge.”

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