Ever since the Soviet Union broke diplomatic ties with Israel in the wake of the 1967 Middle East war, periodic rumors of an imminent rapprochement between the two have abounded. ``But there have never been quite so many rumors as now,'' says Dr. Galia Golan, a Soviet specialist at Hebrew University.
Nor have there been quite so many hints from an Israeli prime minister that Israel wants the restoration of diplomatic relations.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres rarely misses an opportunity in interviews on the prospects for Mideast peace to stress that the Soviet Union can play a role if it normalizes relations with Israel.
Talks on the possibilities for improving Israeli-Soviet ties are expected to figure in Mr. Peres's meetings in the United States with President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz this week. The Israelis are keenly aware of next month's summit between Mr. Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The Israelis hope the agenda will include the Middle East and Soviet Jewry.
The carrot Mr. Peres waves before the Soviets is the chance to make their way back into mainstream Middle East diplomacy. The Soviets have effectively been out of the game since at least 1977 -- when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat short-circuited the planned Geneva Peace Conference by flying directly to Jerusalem to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The conference was to have been jointly sponsored by the US and the Soviet Union.
The Soviets' only major ally in the Middle East is Syria. The two countries have disagreed frequently over such issues as Syrian policy in Lebanon and toward the Yasser Arafat branch of the splintered Palestine Liberation Organization.
Peres is hoping that the Soviets want to broaden their influence in the region and play a part in a peaceful settlement of the disputes between Israel, its Arab neighbors, and the Palestinians. More specifically, the Israelis are convinced the Soviets do not want to see a comprehensive settlement reached without Soviet involvement.
The prime minister is walking a thin line between encouraging the Soviets and being careful not to offend the strongly anticommunist Reagan administration. US policy in the Middle East has for a long time been based on keeping the Soviets out of meaningful diplomacy. Israel has often pleaded its case for ever-increasing aid infusions on the grounds that it is a pro-Western democratic bastion to possible communist inroads in the region.
During Peres's tenure, Israel has agreed reluctantly to allow the placement of Voice of America radio relay stations to beam American programs into the Soviet Union, and enthusiastically agreed to join in Reagan's program for research on the Strategic Defense Initiative. Both decisions raised debate here. Opponents argued that being too eager to aid the US in blatantly anti-Soviet projects could damage efforts to improve Israeli-Soviet relations.
Israel would have much to gain from the restoration of diplomatic ties. One of its primary concerns is the fate of what it estimates to be some 400,000 Soviet Jews who would emigrate from the Soviet Union if given the option.
Jewish emigration, which reached its peak during the height of d'etente in the 1970s, has been reduced to a trickle averaging less than 50 Jews a month, according to the Foreign Ministry. Israel believes it could further the cause of Soviet Jews were it to have regular relations with Moscow. Diplomatic business between the two nations is now conducted through the Netherlands and Finland.
In addition, one official in Jerusalem said, ``renewed ties with the Soviets would have a tremendous impact on our standing in the third world.''
Almost 40 years after its founding, Israel remains an isolated nation in the world community -- often equated with the pariah state of South Africa in the United Nations and in conferences of nonaligned nations. A primary focus of Israeli diplomacy since 1967 has been rebuilding the bridges burned then to black Africa and other third-world nations. Restored relations with the Soviet Union, Israeli Foreign Ministry officials say, would go a long way toward rehabilitating Israel in third world eyes.
How good the prospects are for the Soviets risking Arab wrath to restore ties with Israel, and how encouraging the signals have been from Moscow depends on which side of the evenly divided Israeli government is making the assessment.
Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir is decidely downbeat on the prospects for any breakthrough in Soviet-Israeli relations. Speaking in New York last week during his visit to the United Nations, Mr. Shamir was said to have told reporters that even should the Soviets restore ties with Israel, Israel would oppose the convening of an international conference on Mideast peace which included the participation of the five permanent Security Council members.
King Hussein of Jordan has made such a conference the cornerstone of his phased plan for bringing the Israelis and the Arabs to a negotiating table. The King has reportedly told American diplomats privately that it is only within the framework of an international conference that he could make any of the territorial concessions the Israelis say will have to be made if Israel is to agree to settling the fate of the territories occupied during the 1967 war.
The reports of Shamir's statements were immediately denied by Peres's spokesmen, who insisted that the foreign minister had made no such statement in private talks with Peres, and that no Cabinet decision has been taken that would reflect Shamir's reported comments.
It wasn't the first time people close to Peres have had to scramble to control the damage that ill-timed statements and revelations may have made to their wooing of the Russians:
Last July, news leaked of a meeting in Paris between the Israeli and Soviet ambassadors to France. According to a cable leaked to Israel Radio's diplomatic correspondent, the Soviet ambassador said in the meeting that Moscow was willing to renew relations with Israel and permit unrestricted emigration of Soviet Jews if Israel would at least partially withdraw from the Golan Heights it captured from Syria in 1967.
The leak caused a tremendous outcry in Israeli political circles, and the Soviets soon after seemed to take pains to reiterate their stance that Moscow would restore ties with Israel only after Israel withdrew from all the occupied territories and made peace with its neighbors.
At this week's regular Cabinet session, Peres felt compelled to issue a communiqu'e stating that he did not send a plan to withdraw from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights to the Soviets via World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman. Mr. Bronfman recently visited Moscow, and carried with him a message for Mr. Gorbachev from Peres. One Israeli newspaper also reported that Bronfman carried a position paper on a phased Israeli withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights.
What the series of secret meetings, private messages and garbled rumors means is anybody's guess, according to Dr. Golan.
``I don't know if there's any hope of renewed ties,'' the political scientist said. ``There is a new leadership in Moscow. Gorbachev has been doing all kinds of things that make it look like he's trying to broaden his options beyond Syria. He's made an arms deal with Kuwait, renewed full relations with Egypt, and established close relations with Iraq.''
What is still unknown ``is how the arithmetic we've been doing since 1967 of how much it would cost the Soviets to renew ties adds up now for Gorbachev,'' Dr. Golan said.