SOVIET Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh arrives here today for what Israeli officials are calling a historic, but largely symbolic, visit. Mr. Bessmertnykh is the first Soviet foreign minister to visit Israel since its founding in 1948, and his arrival for five hours of talks with Israeli leaders marks the highest point in ties between the two countries since Moscow broke off diplomatic relations after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
``This is a historic visit just because of the fact that it is happening,'' says an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. ``There is a lot of excitement about it.''
But earlier expectations that Bessmertnykh would use today's trip to announce the full restoration of diplomatic relations, with the exchange of ambassadors, has dimmed in recent days.
Israeli officials say they are not ruling out the possibility that the Soviet envoy might take the final step to normalize links today, but they do not expect him to do so.
``Nor do I think we will raise the issue,'' says the Israeli official. ``We would like to see full relations, but we don't want to be seen as very, very anxious. They broke off relations and it is for them to resume them.''
In Damascus, Syria, last week, a Soviet diplomat said he did not expect a full resumption of relations this soon. ``We do not want to do Israel extra favors at this point,'' he said. ``I think the protocols will probably be signed during a future visit by [Israeli Foreign Minister David] Levy to Moscow.''
The Israeli government has insisted that if the Soviet Union is to cosponsor the Middle East peace conference that United States Secretary of State James Baker III is trying to convene, Moscow must restore full diplomatic relations with Israel first.
The Soviets have also effectively tied diplomatic relations to the peace process, from another direction, by saying that they will not name an ambassador to Israel until they see ``significant progress'' in the peace process. Under the current circumstances, this is understood to mean Israel's attendance at a peace conference.
Before that happens, analysts here say, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is unlikely to move.
``Gorbachev needs something to hang a restoration of relations on,'' says Galia Golan, professor of Soviet Studies at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. ``It's hard to see how he can take this step without a single condition being met.''
By sending his foreign minister to Jerusalem, however, Mr. Gorbachev is clearly seeking a larger Soviet role in Mr. Baker's peace initiative, without taking the step of normalizing relations.
``He is trying to see if he can get into the show without paying the full price of the ticket,'' says the Israeli official.
That relations will be restored soon is unquestioned here - the Soviets have repeatedly expressed their intention of doing so, and links between the two countries have been improving over the past four years.
Both governments have named very senior diplomats as consul generals, the Soviets have opened a chamber of commerce in Israel, a number of Israeli ministers have visited Moscow, and cultural and scientific exchanges have become almost routine.
``We have almost everything,'' says the official. ``It is like we are living in sin. All we are missing is the blessing of the rabbi.''
With Israel's traditional concerns about the Soviet Union now met - hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews are emigrating to Israel, and those who remain are free to practice their religion - diplomats here say they expect mainly to listen to Bessmertnykh during his meetings with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister David Levy.
``We shall see what tidings he brings from Damascus and Amman,'' says an Israeli official, reflecting Israeli hopes that the Soviet foreign minister might exert pressure on Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, who he met yesterday, to be flexible with Baker's efforts.
``The Soviets can use the influence they have accumulated in Arab capitals over many years. They've used it in a negative way; now they can use it in a positive way,'' deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday.
Mr. Shamir said this week he hoped Moscow might reconsider its traditional positions in the region, telling a meeting of the Jewish World Congress Tuesday that ``the time has come for a change in Soviet relations with extreme elements among the Arabs.''