The expected exchange of visits by Israeli and Soviet delegations, and Moscow's reported readiness to allow thousands of Jews to emigrate to Israel, could pave the way for a more visible Soviet role in the Middle East. Most Israeli officials are cautiously optimistic about reports that the Soviet Union is prepared to allow 11,000 to 12,000 Jews to emigrate directly to Israel via Romania in the coming year.
``There are signals and signs, but no certainty,'' Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said.
Foreign Ministry director-general Avraham Tamir yesterday confirmed that a Soviet delegation would visit Israel in about two weeks. The team is expected to survey Russian Church property in Israel and hold bilateral talks. An Israeli team will visit Moscow later.
Whether such overtures will lead to a resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries is unclear. Some Israeli officials have said that a warmer atmosphere could lead to diplomatic ties and an eventual Soviet role in the Mideast peace process. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has said that Moscow must restore ties and allow free emigration of Soviet Jews before it can take part in any Mideast peace conference.
In Israel, Soviet Jewish activists are warning the government against showing undue enthusiasm over Moscow's moves. If the government is simply satisfied with the immigration of several thousand Jews, the activists say, that could jeopardize the longstanding demands for free immigration of some 400,000 other Soviet Jews who reportedly want to leave.
The Soviet offer ``looks like a death sentence for Jewish exit from the Soviet union,'' said Yuri Stern, of the Soviet Jewry Education and Information Center. ``While the arrival of Jews should be welcomed, it should never be depicted as a major breakhrough or a solution to their problem, which is of a completely different magnitude.''
Newly published statistics in Geneva Wednesday showed that 470 Jews left the Soviet Union in March - the highest monthly figure in 5 years.
Soviet officials told World Jewish Congress leaders in Moscow last week that they would allow more Jews out soon. The Soviets were also reported as willing to grant Jews more religious freedom; consider letting new synagogues and a rabbinical seminary open; and allow Hebrew to be taught.
Soviet dissident Iosif Begun told Israel Army radio in Moscow that he had seen no immediate evidence to corroborate the reports of a new Soviet policy.
Mr. Tamir, who discussed an international conference last week with Soviet and Chinese officials at the UN, said that ``the groundwork had been laid'' for a preparatory committee meeting. Moscow has reportedly shown some flexibility about such a conference. But it has not accepted Peres's insistence that no outside participants in the conference can impose a solution. The Soviets also oppose having a preparatory committee of only Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians. It wants the UN Security Council's permanent members included.
Peres has also linked the reported change in Soviet policy on Jewish immigration to Mikhail Gorbachev's broader policies of liberalization. An Israeli official speculated the change might have more to do with Soviet-American relations than the Mideast. ``The move should be considered as part of a complex set of factors which are all interconnected,'' he said. ``Everything is linked.''