Soviets try to regain Mideast role

The Soviet Union's first known high-level talks with Israel for six years mark a crucial step toward challenging US domination of Mideast diplomacy. Diplomats here see no sign that challenge will bear fruit any time soon. Nor do they expect any early improvement in relations between the Soviets and Israelis. Moscow cut diplomatic ties with the Jewish state after the 1967 Mideast war.

But the Sept. 24 meeting at the United Nations between the foreign ministers of the two countries is seen here as part of a serious, if gradual, Soviet bid to redress one overriding imbalance in the superpower equation for the Mideast:

The Americans have close ties with Israel. The Soviets have virtually none.

Arab states, even formal Soviet allies like Syria, see Israeli concessions as key to any overall Mideast settlement. At present there is only one superpower that might help on that front: the United States.

The Soviets have made no secret on their desire to change the equation.

President Leonid Brezhnev proposed last February a new international effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was an effort that would include Israel (with guarantees for Israeli security), while admitting the Palestine Liberation Organization and readmitting the Soviet Union to the negotiating process.

Even as his official news media branded the current Israeli regime as terrorist, Mr. Brezhnev said explicity a few months later that he wanted "good relations" with Israel, should changes in current Israel policy make this possible.

In one Hebrew-language radio commentary in July, the Soviets went so far as to suggest that they and the Israelis might find cause to stand together against US Mideast policy.

"The USA is using Israel as a tool," the broadcast by Moscow's Radio Peace and Progress argued. It said the Americans were encouraging Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in "all kinds of adventures," while also cozying up to the Arabs.

Is not the United States, the radio asked, "trying to guarantee its own interests . . . by sending weapons to Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries which do not conceal their hostility toward Israel?"

The Soviets, of course, don't do much concealing on that front either.

Their main, short-term priority in the Mideast seems to lie in countering a perceived US military buildup in the region by consolidating strategic ties with such states as Syria, South Yemen, and perhaps eventually Libya. Syria's defense minister recently completed a long visit to Moscow.

On the diplomatic front, the Soviets are moving to encourage Arab moderates' uneasiness with US Mideast policy.

One evident reason that Moscow is not yet moving to restore relations with Israel -- the Israelis said the Sept. 24 talks yielded "no breakthrough" -- lies in concern that this could complicate relations with some Arab states.

The Soviets reportedly shelved plans for a meeting with Israel's foreign minister in 1977 when the Israelis refused to keep the encounter secret. This time around, the Soviets even announced the meeting themselves.

One reason for this, diplomats and some Soviet sources suggest, is that Moscow sees an eventual improvement in ties with Israel as key in any serious challenge to the Americans' virtual monopoly over Arab-Israeli diplomacy.

It seems unlikely, even in the long run, that Moscow can rival Washington's potential influence over the Israelis. But in an eventual bid for at least a piece of diplomatic action, the Soviet Union could find two elements working in its favor, some foreign analysts here argue.

The first is the Israelis' concern that Washington may try to impose a Mideast peace formula they reject.

The second is Kremlin control over Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union -- an issue raised by the Israelis at the Sept. 24 meeting at a time when the number of Jews permitted to leave continues to decline.

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