Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres yesterday defended an agreement reached by American Jewish leaders with Soviet officials that reportedly will allow as many as 12,000 Soviet Jews to leave the Soviet Union in the coming year. ``From what we know, it was a good opening. I supported the visit,'' Mr. Peres said in an interview with the Monitor. His comments came as criticism of the reported agreement mounted among Soviet Jewry activists here and in the United States.
Peres said he prefers to see the visit by American Jewish leaders to Moscow in the context of the ``broad picture'' surrounding stepped up contacts between Israel and the Soviet Union. He attributed renewed Soviet interest in the Middle East and in approaching Israel to renewed US-Soviet negotiations and the dynamic leadership of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Peres said Israel is being confronted with ``hard facts'' by the Soviet leadership that include a recent increase in exit visas granted to refusedniks; the release of ``practically all of the Zionist prisoners'' held in Soviet jails; and Soviet plans to send a consular delegation to Israel and to allow a similiar Israeli delegation to visit Moscow. The consular exchange would be the first such exchange between the two nations since the Soviet Union broke diplomatic relations with Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Peres acknowledged that although the Soviets made some overtures to Israel shortly after he began serving as prime minister in September 1984, Moscow has moved faster than he expected.
``Surely there was one thing nobody could have forseen two years ago,'' Peres said. ``The change in Soviet leadership that has stepped up the changes in Soviet policy.''
Peres said he is convinced that Mr. Gorbachev wants to apply his policy of glasnost, or openness, to the Middle East.
``I believe that glasnost will also refer finally to the Middle East. The Middle East will be a spinoff of it,'' Peres said. He does not believe the Soviet leaders ``have yet made up their minds'' about reestablishing full diplomatic ties with Israel, he added. Israel and the US have made the restoration of such ties a prerequisite for Soviet participation in a Mideast peace conference.
Peres said he is convinced that the Soviet Union wants to participate fully in an international conference. Moscow's desire to participate, coupled with its desire to improve relations with the US, he said, has provided the impetus for the Soviet overtures to Israel.
He acknowledged that differences remain between the Israelis and the Americans, on one side, and the Soviets and the Arabs on the other, over what sort of international conference should be convened to seek a comprehensive settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Soviets, he said, retain a ``deep commitment'' to the Arab demand for full Israeli withdrawal from all territories that it occupied in the 1967 war, and would like a peace conference to be given enough power to pressure Israel.
If an international conference ``serves as a facilitator to direct negotiations, then yes, we are for it,'' Peres said. ``But if it is a pressure cooker, then no, we are not a chicken to be put in a pressure cooker.''
The opening to the Soviet Union promises to give Peres a badly needed tangible diplomatic victory after a string of setbacks. His image has been tarnished both here and abroad for his share in the government's perceived mishandling of Israel's role in the US arms deals with Iran and the Pollard spy affair.
Renewed ties with the Soviet Union and Soviet participation in an international conference also would provide a possible issue for breaking free of the government of national unity that locks his Labor Party to the opposition Likud bloc until October 1988 and keeps Peres in the Foreign Ministry until then.
Labor Party officials this week started issuing warnings that unless Israel is open to pursuing an international peace conference, it may lose its chance to restore ties with the Soviet Union and to win a dramatic increase in Soviet Jewish emigration. Such statements seem calculated to pressure the Likud bloc and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who continues to reject publicly the notion of Israeli participation in any sort of international conference.
Peres seemed to echo the warning issued by Labor Party minister Yaacov Tsur and others when he cautioned that ``maybe the opening for us with the Soviet Union will last for a short while,'' in the lead-up to a planned June meeting between President Reagan and Gorbachev. ``Maybe the best time for progress is during the period of negotiations between the US-USSR,'' Peres said.
Already, Israel's dealings with the Soviet Union are stirring debate here and in the US. Soviet Jewry activists in Israel, the Soviet Union, and the US have denounced the agreement reached last week by Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, and Morris Abram, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, with Soviet officials. Mr. Bronfman and Mr. Abram have been accused by some activists of abandoning some 440,000 other Soviet Jews who have applied for visas to emigrate by settling for visas for 12,000 long-term refusedniks.
Peres gently chided those who have criticized Abram and Bronfman, noting that ``surely there is a little bit of jealousy, of competition'' among those who have agitated for emigration over the years. But although Peres was the first senior Israeli official publicly to support the Bronfman-Abram agreement with Soviet officials, he cautioned that even if the Soviet Union does allow 12,000 Jews to leave in the next year, Israel still will press for more to be allowed to emigrate.
``Twelve thousand [exit visas] would not be enough,'' Peres said. ``I would be careful with numbers.''
He said he also welcomed the Soviet agreement to fly Jews directly to Israel via Romania, an agreement that he said ``is the most crucial part of the whole story'' of the Abram-Bronfman mission.
Peres and other Israeli officials have sought direct flights in an effort to reduce the so-called dropout rate of Soviet Jews who gain emigration visas on the basis of wanting to come to Israel, then fly elsewhere once they leave the Soviet Union. As many as 90 percent of Jews receiving exit visas in recent years have headed to the US or other Western nations.