Tel Aviv — For the first time in 20 years, Soviet consular officials kept office hours here yesterday. Yevgeny Antipov, head of the eight-member Soviet delegation that arrived in Israel Sunday night, opened the office at 8:30 a.m. By 10 a.m., his consular team already had received several Soviet citizens. Some sought to renew their passports, others asked about obtaining visas to visit relatives in the Soviet Union.
Some 2,200 to 2,500 Soviet citizens live in Israel, Mr. Antipov said in an interview, and his delegation hopes to make contact with many of them during the next three months. The team also intends to survey property of the Russian Orthodox Church in Israel.
By yesterday morning, Antipov had received some 30 phone calls from Soviet citizens ``asking when we will be open.'' And his team had been beseiged by reporters and confronted with demonstrations for Soviet Jewry.
This attention is based on the widespread belief here that the Soviet team is not the purely technical group Antipov and other members insist it is. Israeli analysts point to renewed Soviet interest in this region, a recent spate of meetings between Soviet and Israeli officials, and Soviet interest in a Middle East peace conference to bolster their conviction that the Soviets are inching toward renewed ties with Israel.
Both the Israeli government and the Soviet team, however, are determined to downplay the significance of this visit and to defuse expectations of any dramatic change in Soviet-Israeli relations.
``Our mission is not diplomatic, not political. It is purely a technical task,'' said Antipov, deputy director of the consular directorate of the Soviet Foreign Ministry.
Yet the visit of the Soviet officials has attracted massive press coverage in Israel.
``Unfortunately, most of the people we have met here so far have been reporters,'' Antipov said.
The Soviets do not seem entirely unhappy with the intensity of interest in their visit. A pair of US reporters called Tuesday afternoon with an interview request and the next morning were ushered in to see Antipov and Alexei Tchistiakov, head of the Middle East and North Africa Department of the Soviet Foreign Ministry.
Mr. Tchistiakov spent five years with the Soviet Embassy in Beirut before returning to Moscow in 1985.
Tchistiakov said the Soviet team would have arrived earlier, ``but there was a fuss about so-called reciprocity.'' He was referring to Israel's initial insistence that an Israeli team be allowed to visit the Soviet Union if a Soviet team came here.
Although Israel continues to insist that the principle of reciprocity applies, a Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman, speaking Tuesday in Moscow, said there would be no reciprocal Israeli visit.