Gorbachev, No Longer a Leader, Gets Highest Welcome to Israel

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who arrived here on Sunday on an unprecedented four-day visit, received the kind of official welcome usually reserved for heads of state.

Foreign Minister David Levy welcomed Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, at the airport, along with other Foreign Ministry officials and scores of photographers.

“There is a warm corner in Israel for you, who have done so much for the freedom of our people,” Levy told Gorbachev.

Although there was no red carpet for the Gorbachevs to walk down — a protocol reserved for visiting heads of state — the couple seemed genuinely touched by the dignified reception.

Gorbachev said he would “not hide my deep feelings and honor toward this people.”

The Gorbachev visit is special in that the Foreign Ministry is handling it.

From Ben-Gurion Airport, Gorbachev and Levy traveled by motorcade to Jerusalem, where the foreign minister hosted a special lunch at the King David Hotel. Following lunch, Gorbachev visited with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek.

In the evening, politicians and pundits gathered at the presidential residence for a festive dinner. Emerging from a white Mercedes, the Gorbachevs were greeted by President Chaim Herzog and his wife, Aura.

Among the invitees were former Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky and his wife, Avital, who were meeting Gorbachev for the first time. While waiting in the receiving line, Sharansky was asked what he expected to hear from Gorbachev.

Shaking his head skeptically, he replied, “Nothing.”

Sharansky owes his freedom to Gorbachev, who ordered his release from jail in February 1986, a year after taking office. Soon after, hundreds of other political prisoners were freed and the emigration gates were swung open. Some 400,000 Jews have come to Israel since then.

Addressing Gorbachev, Herzog said, “For Israel, you will always be remembered for your contribution in lessening the tension between the superpowers in our region; as the person who strengthened the ties between the Soviet Union and Israel; and as the person who opened up the gates for Soviet Jewry and enabled them to make aliyah.”

Gorbachev responded: “My visit here can be seen as a symbol of the changes that have taken place in the Soviet Union. For Jews here and the Soviet Union, their lives can only improve as relations between our two countries continue to grow.”

He then turned to Shamir and quipped, “I hope the road to peace takes less time than it took Moses to cross the desert.”

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