Israel Taking Cautious Approach to Recognition of Baltic States

The swift breakup of the Soviet empire poses a dilemma for Israel, which must decide what type of relations to have with the constituent republics, which are announcing their secession from the Soviet Union one by one.

Opposition parties in the Knesset are pressuring the Likud government to extend immediate diplomatic recognition to the Baltic republics — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — which have proclaimed independence of Moscow.

But Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is exercising the same caution that characterized his mute response to the failed military coup in Moscow last week.

“As a small country, Israel should not rush to recognize,” Shamir told reporters Tuesday before leaving on an official visit to Bulgaria.

“We will not be the first to take decisive steps, and we will act only according to the developments,” he said.

His remarks indicated that while Israel eventually will recognize the Baltic republics, it will follow the lead of the United States, which has also been cautious in its approach.

That decision apparently emerged from high-level discussions earlier in the week involving Shamir and Foreign Minister David Levy. It stemmed from Israel’s special position with respect to the Soviet Union.

Jerusalem is reluctant to take any step that might offend the central authorities in Moscow because of possible repercussions for Jewish emigration and for the Jews remaining behind.

At the same time, Israel does not want to be perceived to be lagging, if only because the Baltic republics, especially Lithuania, have sizeable Jewish populations.

CRITICISM FROM THE LEFT

The 12 European Community member states and the Scandinavian countries have recognized them. But Shamir and Levy apparently decided it is prudent for Israel to march in lock step with the United States on this issue.

Israel adopted a similar approach earlier this summer when it came to lifting economic sanctions against South Africa.

The United States never recognized the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states in 1940, when the Hitler-Stalin pact was in force. And Washington has made their liberation a cause celebre of the Cold War during the past 40 years.

Ironically, President Bush’s conservative administration has been hesitant now that their freedom is at hand.

Bush, at his vacation retreat in Kennebunk-port, Maine, said Monday that the United States has “special responsibilities” not to make hasty decisions that could contribute to the instability of the Soviet Union.

Shamir’s refusal to commit Israel to prompt recognition of the Baltic states has fueled criticism from the opposition in the Knesset, especially in light of the government’s silence over the coup in Moscow last week.

It was “wrong for Israel to have been among the countries that kept silent for reasons of expediency when the issue was one of good against evil,” Labor Party leader Shimon Peres declared. He said Israel should repair its reputation by immediate recognition of the Baltic states.

Yossi Sarid of the Citizens Rights Movement, just back from a trip to Moscow, also took issue with Shamir’s go-slow policy. He said Israel could afford to recognize the newly independent Baltic states and take speedy steps to exchange diplomatic representatives with them.

Israel must not lag behind other countries in making such important diplomatic moves, he said.

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