The Right to Leave

AFTER years of waiting, Soviet Jews wanting to emigrate now find their exit barred, or at least narrowed, by Mideast politics. Palestinian leaders worry that a flow of new citizens to Israel will tip the demographic scale in the Jewish state's favor and lead to increased settlement of the West Bank and other occupied areas.

Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat has been lobbying the Soviet Union to block the flow of emigrants to Israel. Soviet officials announced late last week they would stop issuing tickets to emigrants bound for Budapest, the main terminal for flights on to Israel.

Earlier, the Hungarian national airline, Malev, stopped its charter flights to Jerusalem following threats of sabotage from an extremist Palestinian group. Hungarian authorities are reconsidering, however, and Poland has volunteered Warsaw's airport to take up the slack.

Israel is doing what it can to respond to these actions. And Washington should do its part by reminding the Soviets that improved economic relations with the West are tied to the emigration issue.

Freer travel and emigration have been hallmarks of the Gorbachev reforms - not just for Jews but for all Soviet citizens. Like many aspects of perestroika, though, they have a way to go before all bureaucratic harassment and entanglements are shaken loose. Any retrenchment at this point is deeply disturbing, especially when confrontation in the Baltics raises other shadows of Stalinism.

To plead free emigration for Soviet Jews is not to ignore the concerns of Palestinians. Settlement of immigrants on occupied territory would cynically damage both the hopes of those new Israelis for a better, more peaceful life and hopes for peace throughout the region. The US must stick to its stand that aid to Israel can't be applied to those areas.

But the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate should be defended, regardless of the politics that threaten to engulf it.

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