The first Soviet consular delegation to visit Israel in 20 years arrived unannounced at Ben Gurion airport Sunday night, signaling the possibility for a genuine thaw in relations between the two nations. A crowd of reporters, Cabinet ministers, and parliament members descended on the airport to greet freed Soviet dissident Yuli Edelstein, who flew in on the same plane from Vienna. But only officials of the Finnish Embassy, which represents Soviet interests in Israel, greeted the eight-member Soviet team.
Israeli officials kept the date and time of the delegation's arrival secret, they confirmed yesterday, because they feared Soviet Jewry activists would demonstrate at the airport.
Israeli Foreign Ministry officials last month expressed the hope that the delegation's visit would bring the restoration of diplomatic ties between Israel and the Soviet Union a step closer. They were concerned that a hostile reception could result in the Soviets slowing down the pace of renewed contacts.
In recent months, Israeli and Soviet officials have met with increasing frequency in the United States and Europe. The number of exit visas granted Soviet Jews has increased dramatically this year, raising Israeli hopes that full diplomatic ties might be restored between the two nations.
Both Israel and the US have made restored ties and an increase in exit visas for Jews preconditions for Soviet participation in a Middle East peace conference. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres continues to work for the convening of a conference, despite the fact that half the Israeli government opposes it.
According to Israeli Foreign Ministry officials, last week's talks in Geneva between US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy and Vladimir Polyakov, his Soviet counterpart - which included the peace conference idea - showed that the Soviet Union is ``flexible'' and ``open-minded'' about the nature of such a parley.
Continued interest by the US, Egypt, Jordan, the Soviet Union, and part of Israel's government in the conference gives added significance to the Soviet consular visit.
But it is unclear how the Soviets will be received during their inspection of property owned by the Russian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem and other parts of the country. The improvement of ties is opposed by some activists who argue that there should be no restoration of relations until all Soviet Jews wishing to leave the Soviet Union are granted exit visas. Israeli officials are worried that militants might make life difficult for the Russians during their stay here.
``Surely, we will organize some demonstrations,'' says Chaim Chesler, executive director of the Israel Public Council for Soviet Jewry. ``We want to draw Israeli and world attention to the condition of Soviet Jews, which has not really changed under the new Soviet leadership. But we are not anti-Soviet.'' Mr. Chesler acknowledges, however ``that more radical activists'' are opposed to the delegation's visit.
It is not yet clear which, if any, Israeli officials will meet with the consular team during its visit. The Soviet team is headed by Yevgeni Antipov, deputy director of the Soviet Foreign Ministry's Consular Department. The team was issued 90-day visas and granted diplomatic status upon its arrival. It was reported to have checked into a Tel Aviv beach hotel.