ISRAELI assurances that immigrants from the Soviet Union will not be resettled in the West Bank or Gaza are welcome. Only a week ago top government officials had been saying Israel would make no such promises. Clearly, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and others in his new right-wing government were shaken by Mikhail Gorbachev's threat that departures of Soviet Jews would be curtailed if such assurances were not forthcoming. They were also concerned about complaints from Washington.
Housing Minister Ariel Sharon proclaimed the new policy in a speech before the Jewish Agency. Mr. Sharon, always the wily politician, doubtless wanted to get out in front of his old intraparty rival, Mr. Shamir, on the issue. But there's no evidence of division on the substance of his words, that ``immigrants ... will not be settled beyond the green line [the pre-1967 borders of Israel].''
Shamir said Sharon's statement simply reaffirmed decisions already spelled out in a letter to Mr. Gorbachev. The prime minister reportedly is planning to send similar assurances to President Bush. Defense Minister Moshe Arens, during a tour of the West Bank, confirmed he had no reservations about the Sharon speech.
The question, now, is what steps will be taken to enforce this policy? Will housing subsidies be withdrawn from immigrants who want to move to the territories? Will clear actions follow the words?
To Palestinians, Sharon's words are comfortless. Most of the Soviet Jews moving to areas behind pre-'67 borders are settling in largely Arab East Jerusalem, a territory Israel has formally annexed and which is thus not affected by the policy change.
In any case, Arab fears about increased Jewish immigration, and Arab distrust of the Shamir government, aren't likely to be eased by political moves designed to ensure a continued flow of newcomers.
Assuring Palestinians that its talk about peace is genuine is the new government's most difficult - and most urgent - task.