JERUSALEM (Mar. 22)
Soviet Communist Party Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev’s lengthy comments on the Middle East in a policy speech to the Soviet Trade Union Congress yesterday, elicited some muted expressions of satisfaction here today. While there was little that was new in the substance of Brezhnev’s remarks, the tone and timing of his statements seemed aimed at thawing, if ever so slightly. the long frozen relations between Moscow and Jerusalem.
Brezhnev’s speech was also welcomed here if only because it caused irritation in some Arab capitals. Observers stressed, however, that the Soviet leader’s formula for Middle East peace remains unchanged: Israel’s complete withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories, to be carried out in stages; demilitarized zones on both sides of the final boundaries; UN forces or observers to police those zones; free passage for ships of all countries–including Israel–through the Straits of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba; and the right of the Palestinians to have their own state.
Almost all of these lines have been advocated by the Soviets in the past. One new point was Brezhnev’s indication that he did not favor an imposed solution in the Middle East–something Israel has long feared might be attempted by the two superpowers. Observers here considered it noteworthy that Brezhnev made his speech only six days before U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance is due to visit. Moscow.
They saw that as an indication that the Middle East will figure high on the agenda of Vance’s talks with Soviet officials–along with Soviet displeasure over President Carter’s human rights efforts, the SALT talks and other bilateral issues.
BASIS FOR SLIGHT SHIFT
According to the observers. Brezhnev’s remarks on the Middle East were clearly motivated by the Kremlin’s desire to reassert its influence in Middle East diplomacy. The Soviets are aware that the Geneva conference may well be reconvened next fall–President Carter is aiming toward that–and they want to ensure that they have an equal role with the Americans in whatever substantive developments take place there.
That accounts for the slight softening of the Soviets’ usual anti-Israel tone evident in Brezhnev’s remarks, observers said. There is little support here for the view that Moscow is preparing ground for a renewal of diplomatic relations with Israel. But the Soviets may want a less frigid atmosphere if they are to play a central role in the peace process which has been dominated by American diplomacy for the past two years. If the Soviet Union was indeed interested in normalizing relations with Israel, it would have to end its current persecution of Jewish dissidents and emigration activists. But it shows no signs of doing so, the observers said.
Brezhnev’s Middle East statements were attacked today in the semi-official Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram and in other leading newspapers of the Arab world, for failure to dwell on Palestinian rights and giving too much attention to Israel’s maritime rights. However, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ismail Fahmy subsequently toned down the initially negative reaction. He said that Brezhnev’s remarks were basically favorable but there were some points that required “clarification.”