Soviet Foreign Policy with Isreal
By Michelle Dietrich '91
Soviet Foreign Policy
Writing Objective: Write a research paper on an aspect of Soviet foreign policy of your choice.
Under Gorbachev’s regime, the Soviet government has attempted to open new diplomatic doors to countries that were previously considered pariahs. One of the most striking of these is Israel with whom the USSR has not had positive diplomatic contact for at least twenty years. The present Soviet relationship with Israel is a complex one. This relationship has been constrained by Arab disunity and hostility to Israel. However, Moscow seems to be anxious to take part in negotiations in the Middle East to combat the conflicts raging therein. In order to be fully effective in this aim, the Soviets must cultivate and eventually normalize relations with Israel. Only then can the Soviet Union obtain the more influential position which they are presently seeking.
For a clear understanding of the present relationship between the Soviet Union and Israel, and how far they have advanced, the basis of their relationship must be explicated. Initially, Soviet-Israeli relations were of a positive nature. The honeymoon phase in Soviet-Israeli relations was in 1949, as was expressed in Moscow’s support for the United Nations Partition Resolution in November 1947, recognition of Israel in May 1948, and support for Israel’s admission to the UN in December 1948 and May 1949. In fact, the support the Soviet Union initially showed for Israel was one of the (then) rare areas of agreement between the United States and the USSR in the Third World. Soviet aid to Israel was significant at this time as well—”it was Soviet bloc weapons that enabled Israel to withstand the initial Arab assault in 1948; and it was Soviet bloc weapons to Egypt and Syria (since 1955) that catalyzed an inflationary spiral in the arms race within that subordinate system” (Brecher, 1972).
The Soviet refusal to give Israel economic aid in 1950 was perceived as confirmation of the expected reversion to Soviet hostility. Furthermore, over the years, the treatment of Soviet Jewry was portrayed by Israeli leaders as comparable with the German slaughter of European Jewry (Brecher, 1972). Therefore,the friendly attitude toward Israel lasted only for a few months, for signs of a much cooler, even hostile, approach could be detected already in the autumn of 1948. A progressive deterioration in the relations between the two countries set in after that date, despite Soviet outward support for Israel in such bodies as the UN. Soviet charges against Israel were that “it had not become the democratic and independent state whose creation the USSR had supported. Instead, it had turned out to be a tool of Wall Street, a reactionary, capitalist country, in which the national minority and the ‘popular masses’ were oppressed and exploited” (Laqueur, 1959).
These accusations became gradually more adamant until, in 1952-3, one might almost have gathered that Jews and Jewish organizations (not necessarily Zionist) were among the most dangerous enemies of the USSR. These accusations made by the Soviets were, for the most part, propaganda, for Israel followed a policy of non-identification with the major powers during the first years of its existence. However, its relations with the Western powers, especially those with Britain, which had been extremely tense in 1947-8, gradually became normalized (Laqueur, 1959). This evolution can be perceived as a component of the Soviet’s withdrawal of support, for it was precisely the “anti-British activities of Zionism” (Laqueur, 1959) that had induced the Soviet leaders to support the establishment of the Jewish state. In addition, there was a gradual improvement in relations between the Arab countries and the USSR; “the center of the anti-Western struggle in the Middle East shifted to Egypt in 1950-1 and it was only natural that the USSR came to support the Arab states against Israel” (Laqueur, 1959).
Not only was Israel’s foreign policy condemned by the Soviet Union, but its domestic policies were disapproved of as well: the alleged exploitation of new immigrants and workers in general and the discrimination against the Arab minority in particular. All this despite the fact that Israel was ruled by an all-Labor coalition, some of whose members were long-standing supporters of Soviet policies (Laqueur, 1959). The issue of importance to the Soviets, however, was not the measure of socialist progress inside a country like Israel, but its foreign political alignment; that is, in view of the specific position and geographic distribution of the Jewish people, it was most unlikely that Israel would turn against the West in the same way as the Arabs.
A dramatic break in Soviet diplomatic relations with Israel, which ushered in the tense relations the two countries experienced since, occurred in February 1953 following an explosion on the grounds of the Soviet Mission in Tel Aviv. Official apologies and the disclaimer of bad faith were swept aside. Relations were restored five months later, but tension continued to mount. In the fall of 1955, the Soviet bloc made a deep political penetration into the Middle East through the sale of arms on a large scale to Egypt and Syria. This act ranged the USSR and her allies on the Arab side in the Middle East conflict. Furthermore, whenever necessary, the Soviets used their veto to prevent any Security Council action that would prove to be injurious to their client Arab states, as with the Council’s admonition to Egypt in 1954 to discontinue the denial of passage through the Suez Canal to Israeli ships and cargo (Reich, 1987). Early in November 1956, Moscow used serious threats of direct bombing and the dispatch of “volunteers” to deny Israel the gains she received through her victory in the Sinai campaign. A significant issue in these developments for Israel was the flexibility in Soviet policy on emigration of Soviet Jews, highlighted by Premier Kosygin’s pledge in a Paris statement in 1966 of the “reunion of families” program which led to a migration of several thousand Jews to Israel in 1965-7 (Brecher, 1972). But even this program was discontinued after the Six Day War in 1967.
During the period of the 1950s, relations between the Soviet Union and Israel did experience a short thaw. In 1954, after the explosion at the Soviet Mission, “diplomatic ties were renewed and for a time became as close as before, if not more so. In many meetings and visits, the Soviet ambassador stressed the necessity of developing closer relations and, generally speaking, made considerable efforts to win friends and influence people” (Laqueur, 1959). However, the general picture of Soviet-Israeli relations was not as positive as it seemed on the surface. As stated earlier, on a number of occasions in 1954, Soviet representatives in the UN supported the Arab side against Israel which made an extremely unfavorable impression in Israel. While, on the whole, Soviet observers refrained from commenting on internal developments in Israel, attacks on Zionism and on Israel continued in the broadcasts of Radio Warsaw which was then the main propaganda outlet aimed at Jews outside the Soviet bloc (Laqueur, 1959). In sum, then, the violent anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic character of Stalin’s last years and the break in diplomatic relations in 1953 restored the historic Jewish image of a hostile Soviet Union. After this break came the massive Soviet-inspired Czech-Egyptian arms deal in the autumn of 1955 and the brutal Bulganin-Khrushchev threats of annihilation of Israel during the Sinai campaign. “During the next decade, Soviet patronage of Israel’s Arab enemies increased in intensity and scope with military, economic, diplomatic, and propaganda aid on a massive scale” (Brecher, 1972). Moscow’s incitement of Syria and Egypt in the 1967 crisis leading to the Six Day War deepened Israeli mistrust of Soviet intentions.
The Soviet Union’s perceived hostility reached its peak in the dire Bulganin threats mentioned earlier concerning intervention and air assault in the early days of November 1956, and continued with the attempts to impose UN sanctions against Israel. Further, Moscow was not only the most powerful promoter of the Arab cause and the principal supplier of arms to Israel’s enemies, it also resorted to “vicious language and diabolical threats against a small state” (Brecher, 1972). Therefore, communism in Israel stagnated after 1955 due to the fact that Soviet policy since 1954 had been one of clear and unequivocal support for the Arab countries, whereas its attitude toward Israel was perceived to be quite hostile. For the Arab communists, Soviet support for Nasser and Iraq was certainly no reason for great dejection. In fact, at one time, “in the winter of 1957-8 the feasibility of an ‘Algerian’ development was discussed in party circles—the establishment of a nucleus of an anti-Israeli guerilla army on Israeli soil” (Laqueur, 1959). Practical considerations were, however, against such a proposal, and the idea was discarded—at least at that time.
The Suez Crisis of 1956 is a good example of Soviet policy toward Israel at that time. There were professions of sympathy with Egypt by such organizations as the World Peace Committee, the Soviet trade unions, Soviet women and youth organizations, and so forth. Such sentiments were perhaps fueled by the anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli sentiments of the Soviet government and also by the legacy of such sentiments left to the Soviet Union by Stalin. Therefore, a harsh line was adopted toward Israel, the Soviet Ambassador in Tel Aviv having been recalled earlier, and the Soviet-Israeli commercial agreement, providing for a Soviet supply of fuel, being cancelled by Moscow. Thus, trade is also an indicator of Soviet-Israeli relations at this time. Initially, trade between Israel and the Soviet Union was mainly limited to a barter deal (Israeli citrus products for Soviet fuel oil). Soviet-Israeli trade fell from $11.5 million in 1954 to $8.5 million in 1956 and came to a standstill in 1957 as a result of the Soviet abrogation of the trade agreement with Israel during the Suez War (Laqueur, 1959).
From the preceding, then, one can readily observe the legacy of tension and mistrust which Gorbachev inherited in regard to Israel. Also, the Soviet desire to continue its relations with other Arab countries, which it cultivated during the 1950s and 1960s, is another complicating factor in improving Soviet-Israeli relations. Before an actual discussion of Soviet-Israeli relations as they are today can take place, however, an examination of the treatment and situation of Soviet Jews is necessary since this would obviously have a bearing on Soviet relations with a self-proclaimed Jewish state. The issues involved in this examination are anti-Semitic sentiments and discrimination in the Soviet Union, as characterized by such groups as Pamyat (Memory), and the issue of Jewish emigration to Israel.
During the Brezhnev era, rising chauvinistic and xenophobic Russian nationalism seemed to have deep roots in the communist party and its leadership. “The fact that the reproduction and widespread distribution of anti-Jewish hate literature could take place in the monolithic Soviet totalitarian society testifies to the serious and growing challenge of Russian extremism. After all, duplication machines are strictly controlled and allocated by the authorities in Soviet society” (Freedman, 1984). These anti-Jewish sentiments, however, found their roots in the policies of Joseph Stalin. Originally, only a group of “rootless cosmopolitans” (Laqueur, 1959) were attacked in 1949. However, it soon became apparent that the vast majority of those singled out were Jews; while it was sometimes argued that this rhetoric was not directed against Jews per se, but only against Zionists, the great majority of those victimized as “Zionists” had been active anti-Zionists previously (Laqueur, 1959). Obviously, these developments negatively affected relations between the Soviet Union and Israel, which were already strained at this time.
These patterns of anti-Jewish sentiment were present up to the time in which Gorbachev took power and even now exist in some form. Under Soviet communism before Gorbachev, “although there had been a few instances of benign encouragement of Jewish culture in the Soviet mold, cumulative assaults on Jewish institutions, political and intellectual leaders, books and presses, and on Judaism have made the very survival of Soviet Jewry problematic” (Levin, 1987). As a result of this outlook, many Western Jews have perceived emigration as the only solution to the problem of Soviet Jewish survival. However, this pattern seemed to be changing. As of 1989, Jewish cultural centers had been organized in Moscow and the Baltic republics. Furthermore, for the first time in fifty years Moscow had a rabbinical school—teaching Hebrew, Yiddish, and Jewish history was no longer taboo. In addition, Mr. Yevgeny Primakov was elected at this time—the first Jew since the Stalinist era to hold a position in the Politburo (Economist, 1989).
However, Gorbachev’s openness, while benefitting many Jews, has also opened the door to political groups with obvious anti-Semitic overtones. The roots of these groups find their origins in the 1950s and 1960s. In the early 1950s, a vehement Soviet anti-Israel and anti-Zionist drive found parallels in a harsh propaganda drive against Judaism. This drive “featured some of the most vulgar and frightening anti-Semitic books of all time, books which have gone through many printings and have been awarded official prizes” (Levin, 1987). As stated earlier, after 1967, Soviet Middle Eastern policy became more aggressively pro-Arab and anti-Israel, and Soviet rhetoric at that time increasingly linked its crusade against Zionism and Israel with Judaism and Jewish national identity. However, the possibility existed that one could be anti-Zionist without necessarily being anti-Semitic, but Soviet propaganda at that time seemed, to a large extent, to have blurred that distinction and “Jews were presented in cartoons and caricatures with racial features reminiscent of Nazi propaganda” (Levin, 1987).
Under Gorbachev, however, official discrimination seemed to be silenced. Nevertheless, while this official anti-Semitism was waning, “grass roots” anti-Semitism seemed to be growing, along with the Soviet Union’s assorted disillusioned nationalities. This anti-Semitic sentiment has “fed on ancient prejudices and current difficulties—and on the same glasnost that has allowed Soviet Jews a voice. What scares Soviet Jews is the possibility that the situation could turn violent: that failure of perestroika could deepen the frustrations of ordinary people with the Jew once again being the scapegoat” (Economist, 1989). The chief suppliers of unofficial anti-Semitism are the various branches of the Pamyat (Memory) movement. This movement started innocuously in the early 1970s as an association dedicated to the preservation of the Russian cultural heritage. However, this movement has revived some of the Soviet Union’s old anti-Semitic prejudices and added some unproven new ones. Pamyat has recycled a notorious, and uncorroborated, theory, the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a supposed blueprint for Jewish world domination. Furthermore, Pamyat claims that the Jewish Bolsheviks were responsible for killing the Tsar and for many other crimes. A Jewish activist stated that “it is strange that the Russians never get blamed for Lenin being a Russian, while Jews get blamed for Trotsky being a Jew” (Drinian, 1990). Speakers at Pamyat’s rallies have called for an end to the supposed dominance of Jews in Soviet public life. Jewish “over-representation,” asserted a document written by Mr.Konstantin Smirnov-Ostashvili, should be ended by “not admitting Jews and individuals related to Jews by blood” to universities.scientific academies, or the Communist party. The same document called for banning Judaism and for special protection for authors of “anti-Zionist” works. Some other Pamyat supporters have praised Stalin for his attempted “de-Zionization” which, “unfortunately,” he left unfinished (Economist, 1989). Although some Soviet journalists have criticized Pamyat, the lax official attitude toward it so far has caused some Jews to fear a pogrom atmosphere (Levin, 1987). Gorbachev himself has not reacted to Pamyat’s threats.
These anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist sentiments are obviously significant for Soviet relations with Israel. The Israeli officials will certainly not ignore the type of actions being taken against the Jewish community in the Soviet Union. Therefore, a normalization of the Jewish position in the Soviet Union will surely be necessary for Soviet-Israeli relations to be reactivated. The situation of Soviet Jews described above is obviously not one which would be conducive to friendly relations between the Jewish state of Israel and the Soviet Union. The problems of Soviet-Israeli relations is further exacerbated by the fact that the USSR is among the largest producers of anti-Semitic materials in the world (Freedman, 1984). The Soviet Union’s “campaign of slander, conducted in the mass media and publications, is sensed by many Jews as a threat to their own security in the USSR” (Freedman, 1984).
This discrimination may explain, in part, why so many Jews in recent years have chosen to leave the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the Soviet regime has seemingly reacted to this emigration by reducing its dependence on Jewish “brain power…Admission of Jews to institutions of higher education has been severely curtailed, and stories abound of serious job and promotion discrimination” (Freedman, 1984). The Soviet leadership has apparently decided that little of value should be given to persons who are, eventually, likely to contribute their skills to Israel and the United States. Obviously, such policies only serve to encourage more emigration, which serves as a catalyst for the perpetuation of the cycle of discrimination and emigration. Numerically, Soviet Jews are a small segment of the Soviet population—under three million (Levin, 1987). However, a significant proportion of that population seem to be either emigrating to Israel or applying for such emigration. In 1987, Soviet officials told American visitors to Moscow that the Soviet Union was considering eliminating some of the obstacles to Jewish emigration and allowing Jews to practice their religion if they stayed in the Soviet Union. Soviet diplomats were also implying at that time that an exchange of consular delegations with Israel—the first since the two countries had broken off diplomatic relations twenty years ago— might be forthcoming (Economist, 1987).
The numbers of Jews allowed to emigrate has risen since Gorbachev has come to power. In January 1980, 3266 individual visas were granted. By June, this figure had shrunk to 1489; in December it plummeted to 969 (Freedman, 1984). These figures would suggest the existence of a determined policy to severely curb the rate of emigration rather that a random or arbitrary practice. This policy may have been a result of anti-Semitic and/or anti-Israeli sentiment present in the Soviet Union at this time. However, in the first eleven months of 1989, 62,505 Soviet Jews had emigrated overall which easily broke the record of 51,333 in the whole of 1979. In November of 1989 alone, 11,168 Jews left the Soviet Union. As of December 1989, some 500,000 Jews had either applied for permission to leave or had documents enabling them to make an application (Economist, 1989).
Therefore, in a gesture to both Israeli and Western sensibilities, Gorbachev has allowed Soviet Jewish emigration to increase, first gradually and then dramatically. While this policy was probably aimed more at Soviet relations with the United States than at relations with Israel, it nevertheless had significance in Israel as well. That is, “all Israeli leaders want to increase (and take credit for increasing) the number of Soviet Jewish emigrants. Israel also wants Soviet assistance in getting more Soviet Jews to go to Israel rather than ‘dropping out’ and going the the United States; for these reasons, all Israeli leaders have an interest in expanding relations with the Soviet Union” (Duncan, 1990). However, while Gorbachev has increased Soviet Jewish emigration dramatically and upgraded the Soviet-Israeli dialogue since 1986, the Israeli government remains strongly opposed to a Soviet-backed international conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict, or to any process involving the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
While the Israelis are encouraging Jewish emigration for the aforementioned benefits, the Soviets also expect to gain from their new emigration policy. The possibility exists that Gorbachev expects economic gains by easing Jewish emigration. Experts say that if the number of Jewish emigrants rises enough, the United States Congress could lift some trade restrictions on the Soviet Union, which trend seems to be taking place today (Economist, 1987). A likelier motive, however, is diplomatic. That is, allowing more Jews out of the Soviet Union and edging towards diplomatic relations with Israel could pave the way for Soviet participation in a Middle East peace conference. There is, however, opposition to a more open relationship with Israel. This “opposition to a resumption of relations with Israel and to allowing increased Jewish emigration may be related to opposition to reform” (Irwin, 1987). If so, relations with Israel could become bogged down in light of Gorbachev’s increasing difficulties in instituting these reforms and even in sustaining his own power base. In sum, then, evidence seems to suggest a connection, on the one hand, of political and economic relations between the United States and the USSR and Soviet policy toward Jewish emigration to Israel; on the other hand, there seems to be a connection between the division of exit quotas among the various republics and cities and inner policy considerations of the authorities, regardless of the wishes of Jews in certain places to emigrate.
While opposition to reform may be a factor in barring Jewish emigration, an additional item is also significant. That is, mass emigration of Soviet Jews would be a negative occurrence for Gorbachev’s reform policies. Jews, many of them professionals or aspiring entrepreneurs, posses the skills perestroika desperately needs to succeed (Economist, 1989). Therefore, the Jews are among the people Gorbachev can least afford to lose. Soviet Jewish emigration may also affect Arab sentiments toward the Soviet Union. “Soviet Jews who migrate to Israel, accustomed to being opposed to the Kremlin, have tended to be hardline supporters of the Knesset’s present position on ‘security'” (Drinian, 1990). Hence, a question many Arabs must be considering is whether or not the Jews who come to Israel after perestroika would be hostile to Palestinian claims. Many Arabs seem to be appreshensive that the new emigrants will settle in the occupied territory, thereby thwarting efforts to build an independent state there. However, of the 12,000 Soviet Jews who emigrated to Israel in 1989, fewer than 1% of them have settled in the occupied territories (Drinian, 1990).
In sum, one can readily observe that the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union and Soviet Jewish emigration are contributing factors to an improvement in Soviet-Israeli relations. The easing of emigration policy in the Soviet Union will surely be welcomed by Israel, but may cause problems for Soviet relations with its other Arab clients. In addition, unless the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union improves, dialogue between the Soviets and Israel may be hampered. An interesting component which affects Soviet-Israeli relations is the tie the Soviets have to the PLO. “Soviet leadership may have begun to envision the Palestinian movement as a useful tool for weakening or even overthrowing the…pro-Western regime and replacing it with a government more friendly to the USSR” (Freedman, 1978). Then, in February 1970, Yasir Arafat, who had replaced Ahmed Shikeiry as head of the PLO, was invited to Moscow, but the visit remained unemphasized. Since then, the PLO has been given a few official benefits: an embassy in Moscow and continued expressions of support for self-determination (Economist, 1990).
While Moscow has helped arm, train, and encourage the PLO for years, “the Soviet Union was more a camp follower of the hard-line, radical anti-American Arab regimes it courted. Its attitude toward the PLO has evolved as a function of its perceived need to align itself with the mainstream of the anti-American coalition in the Arab world” (Rubenstein, 1989). Therefore, while the PLO was granted an increasingly central position by Arab leadership, the Soviet Union never agreed to act as the PLO’s protector. Moreover, the Soviet Union was under no obligation whatsoever—moral, legal, or military—to assist thePLO.
The Soviet Union’s relationship with the PLO is therefore significant more on a clandestine rather than on an official level. The relationship the Soviet Union has with the PLO leadership can either prove to be a “help or a hindrance” to Soviet foreign policy with Israel. That is, the Soviets may be able to persuade the PLO to come to a compromise; on the otherhand, the Soviet ties with the PLO may bring negative connotations to its relationship with Israel.
With the rise of Gorbachev to power in the Soviet Union, a warming trend is present in Soviet relations with Israel. Moscow broke off relations with Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and the accession of Gorbachev was required to permit contacts to be renewed. In 1985, Shimon Peres—Israel’s Prime Minister at the time-embraced Moscow’s proposal for an international peace conference on the Middle East. The Soviet’s portion of the agreement would have been to resume normal relations with Israel. A year later, in 1986, the Kremlin requested permission to open a consulate in Tel Aviv. Peres’ successor, Yitzhak Shamir, countered this request by demanding “open gates” for Soviet Jews who wished to emigrate in addition to Israel’s gaining permission to open their own consular mission in Moscow. However, the Soviets summarily rejected both requests. But, in the summer of 1987, Moscow sent an eight-man consular delegation to Israel in effect to establish a diplomatic presence in that Jewish state. Subsequently, the Soviets granted Israel permission to send its own consular delegation to Moscow (Deming, 1988).
Prior to these exchanges, however, there were indications of a Soviet desire to normalize relations. There were some interesting, if inconclusive, moves toward potential changes in the relationship in 1986. “On August 8, 1986, Israeli and Soviet negotiators met in Helsinki, Finland, for the first significant public official contact since the 1967 break in relations. However, the meeting proved shorter than intended and, apparently, achieved no major breakthroughs” (Reich, 1987). In the following month, Soviet Foreign Minister Shevarnadze and then Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres met at the UN, the highest level meeting of Soviet and Israeli officials since 1967. This meeting did not result in any concrete accomplishments either, but both of these meetings seemed to reflect both sides’ desire to pursue a dialogue and these meetings were followed by further contacts.
The rise of Gorbachev to power marked the improvement in Soviet-Israeli relations. Gorbachev’s pursuit of an “open” policy both within his own country and with foreign actors found expression in Soviet relations with Israel. “Gorbachev moved immediately to expand the diplomatic dialogue with Israel, sanctioning informal meetings in Paris and Washington between Soviet and Israeli ambassadors in the summer of 1985 and allowing Poland and Hungary interest sections in Israel” (Duncan, 1990). Gorbachev pursued policies and attitudes which laid the groundwork for more favorable Soviet-Israeli relations.
These efforts paid off in July 1987 when, as stated earlier, a Soviet consular delegation arrived in Tel Aviv, becoming the first official Soviet delegation to visit Israel since the Six Day War in 1967. The arrival of the delegation was a victory of sorts for Soviet policy as Israel had previously linked such a visit to a reciprocal visit by an Israeli delegation or the resumption of full diplomatic relations. Israel’s unconditional agreement to the visit (as well as its subsequent agreement to extend the delegation’s stay for an additional three months) probably reflected Peres’ optimism about improving relations with Moscow and his desire to use this relationship as well as increased Jewish emigration from the USSR to demonstrate the credibility of his claim to be an advocate for peace in the Israeli cabinet. Hence, it seems clear that both the Soviet Union and Israel are becoming increasingly interested in alleviating previous tensions and improving present relations.In fact, the trust that is being cultivated at the present time between the two countries may facilitate negotiations in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as the Soviet Union posesses contacts with both factions.
Relations between the Soviet Union and Israel have continued to advance. In February 1987, Shevarnadze met Israeli Foreign Minister Mosche Arens in Cairo and the two officials agreed to a meeting of experts to exchange information and evaluate the situation in the Middle East. Both parties met again at the UN in September 1989, where a discussion ensued pertaining to the issue of direct flights for Soviet Jewish emigrants to Israel. The Soviet and Israeli consular delegations were, in fact, thereby engaged in substantive dialogue and were being “used as a channel of political communications” (Legvold,1989). Furthermore, in October 1989, for the first time in eight years, the Soviet Union refused to vote against Israel’s membership in the UN (Duncan, 1990).
Obviously, relations between the Soviet Union and Israel have advanced into a new era. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union still seems to construct their policies with Israel in a manner reflecting their anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic sentiments. These sentiments are best summed up in the personage of Soviet Ambassador to Syria Zotov who argued that there was hope of a serious settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict and that Soviet diplomacy must be constructively engaged in achieving it. However, Zotov went on to state that “the situation was deadlocked because ‘rightist Zionist circles’ in Israel (e.g. the Likud bloc led by Prime Minister Shamir) dismiss a compromise based on land for peace and security. He maintained that political influence must be applied to these ‘rightists’ and that the restoration of relations at this time would be premature. Such a restoration, he asserted, should be connected naturally to efforts to stimulate a just peace” (Duncan, 1990). Zotov’s position remained that of the Soviet government into 1990. Moscow appeared to postpone extensive diplomatic relations until Tel Aviv provided a reciprocal act; that is, progress toward a legitimate negotiating process in which the USSR was involved.
The negotiations process and the atmosphere of those negotiations would seem to be changing under the foreign policy leadership of Shevardnadze. Shevardnadze took advantage of his meeting in September 1989 with Arens to state that “the restoration of diplomatic relations was not the important question; rather, he said, emphasis should be put on proceeding with negotiations—either through an international conference or the pursuit of positive elements in other proposals” (Duncan, 1990). Considering the adamant opposition of Israeli Prime Minister Shamir to an international conference or to any sort of direct or indirect negotiations with the PLO, progress in this context would appear to be extremely dubious as do the short-term prospects of a resumption of extensive and close Soviet-Israeli diplomatic relations based on such assumptions of PLO involvement.
The preceding discussion suggests that the Soviets are using the normalization of relations with Israel as a type of pretext for obtaining a stronger voice in the peace-keeping process in the Middle East. The Soviet Union is a superpower far less distant from that region than the United States. “While the Soviet Union’s ability to act as a spoiler may have ebbed, it has by no means disappeared. Nor can it be expected that the Soviets will lose interest in the area” (Bergus, 1988). Therefore, there seem to be some indicators, in this era of glastnost, that the Soviets may be reexamining past policies in order to gain more leverage in the Middle East. Hence, at a time when the Soviets seemingly desire to alleviate diplomatic negativities, they are making incremental and tentative moves away from the situation as it had been since the Soviet rupture of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967.
A resumption of Soviet-Israeli relations is a policy change of major proportions and will involve overcoming serious obstacles on both sides; that is, both countries are committed to third-party alliances (i.e. Israel and the United States, Arabs and the Soviet Union) and Soviet uncertainty about possible domestic repurcussions from dealing with Israel (i.e. protests from the Muslim community in the Soviet Union who would object to ties with Israel). However, the resumption of normal relations can have some positive consequences as well; that is, facilitate the Soviet Union’s long quest for guiding a multi¬lateral comprehensive Middle East peace settlement that might appeal to the Israeli government, enable Israel to represent the interests of Soviet Jews more efficiently, and undermine efforts by the rejectionist Arab states to isolate Israel diplomatically.
Moscow has an obvious interest in better relations with Israel. Estrangement from the strongest single nation in the Middle East has kept the Soviet Union on the diplomatic sidelines there. Hence, rapprochement would enhance Moscow’s influence regionwide. The advantages are not concentrated in Soviet hands, however. For Israel there seem to be at least two benefits; that is, Moscow might be more inclined to urge moderation on its “radical” clients, Syria in particular; close ties should also facilitate the immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel in greater numbers— though spokesmen for the 165,000 Soviet emigres in Israel expressed fears that a thaw in relations with the Soviet Union would lead Israel to forego the plight of Soviet Jewry (Deming, 1988).
A great deal of evidence suggests that Gorbachev and his new policies are responsible for Soviet attempts to normalize relations with Israel. Gorbachev became the first General Secretary to actively pursue expanded ties with Tel Aviv and to offer concessions to Israel in order to enhance Moscow’s regional flexibility and international credibility. These policies, therefore, are closely tied to Gorbachev’s overall designs on the Middle East in general. To accomplish the task of possessing greater influence in that region, Gorbachev has courted Israel and attempted to restore diplomatic relations. However, while Gorbachev’s approach thus far has been both coordinated and flexible, these features do not necessarily assume a restoration of relations but rather promise consistency with other policy initiatives. These policy initiatives or objectives include increased influence in the Middle East. Although reference to Israel’s aggressive policies continue, “mentions of Zionism or anti-Semitic provocation in connection with Israel have virtually disappeared from the central press since Gorbachev became General Secretary” (Legvold, 1989). Instead, promises were made by the Soviet government, and were carried out, that significant numbers of Soviet Jews would be allowed to emigrate. However, Gorbachev seems to link emigration problems and relations with Israel to overall policy in the Middle East. During a 1985 press conference in Paris, Gorbachev stated that the issue of relations with Israel would be “settled as soon as it was possible to normalize conditions in the Middle East. For us there will be no objections; there will be no obstacles. We realize that Israel has the right to exist, to its sovereignty, and we understand its security concerns” (Irwin, 1987).
Under Gorbachev, the future of Soviet policy toward Israel appears to be tied to Soviet policy toward the Middle East as a whole. This in itself is a change because “Soviet policy has traditionally emphasized bilateral relations with individual states in the several subregions of the Middle East at the expense of an overall approach to the area” (Irwin, 1987). Hence, Soviet policy has not so much manipulated the Arab-Israeli conflict as it has secured a client in each of the area’s subregions. Thus, Moscow’s moves toward an opening to Israel represents a new direction in Soviet policy toward Israel and a deliberate effort by Gorbachev to broaden Soviet options in the Middle East.
Much of Soviet policy toward Israel and the thaw in relations between the two countries is a result of a Soviet desire for a voice in the negotiating process in terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Moscow has long argued that disunity weakens Arab negotiating leverage with Israel. Under Gorbachev, the Soviets have tried, with some success, to encourage and become the recognized ally of a moderate Arab coalition seeking a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Soviets have cultivated relations with Arab states, but, until Gorbachev, have largely ignored Israel which seriously damaged their credibility as negotiator. Relations with Israel were pursued to rectify this situation. In April 1987, Gorbachev asserted that the absence of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Israel “cannot be considered normal.” Gorbachev also stressed that the idea of a military solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict was perceived as questionable and that the conflict could only be resolved by political and diplomatic means which was an implicit rejection of Syria’s Assad’s efforts to attain strategic equality with Israel (Duncan, 1990).
A normalization with Israel could threaten Soviet ties with its Arab allies in that area. For to restore relations without Israeli concessions on the occupied territories would amount to a breach of Soviet commitment to Syria and others. Even a shift in the Soviet position to support West Bank Palestinian autonomy would arouse Arab suspicion that the Soviet Union had abandoned its commitment to a comprehensive settlement that would involve the return of the Golan Heights and the creation of a Palestinian state. “While Jordan and Egypt would probably welcome a resumption of Soviet-Israeli relations, as well as a compromise settlement, Syria and the PLO would feel threatened” (Irwin, 1987).
Despite the obvious Soviet desire to have increased influence in the Middle East, some argue that “Gorbachev seems to be no more willing than were his predecessors to risk jeopardizing good relations with prime Arab clients in order to advance the prospect of an Arab-Israeli settlement, witness his kid-gloves treatment of Syrian President Assad. Notwithstanding persisting policy differences over Syria’s instigation of Palestinian opposition to Yasir Arafat’s leadership of the PLO and Syria’s policy in Lebanon, Gorbachev has kept the arms tap open. The continued closeness of the two countries is evident in Gorbachev’s promise of additional weapons and acceptance of Assad’s invitation to visit Syria; in their mutual condemnation of Israel and call for an independent Palestinian state; in their stated non-acceptance of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty; and in their failure in joint communiques to mention UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 as the basis for future negotiations to achieve a comprehensive settlement” (Rubenstein, 1989).
While it is obvious that the Soviet Union will have to tread carefully in its relations with Israel, having to somehow balance these relations with those it shares with its Arab clients, the Soviet Union will still pursue advanced relations. This is so because the Soviet Union can no longer afford to finance an escalation of arms between Syria and Israel and would much rather encourage a peaceful resolution of the conflict there in order to be able to divert resources to its own trouble areas. Therefore, while careful negotiations will be necessary, the Soviets will be quite willing to take part in those negotiations for the reason mentioned above and because such a move would enhance Soviet respectability and credibility in that region and internationally. Thus, “if the Soviets are to play a constructive role in relations with Israel it must be based on something other than Israel-baiting and must involve pressing for concessions from the Arab side” (Foxman, 1988).
The Soviets, however, do not seem to be ardently pressing for Arab concessions, but are rather advocating an Israeli compromise. An article written in Izvestiya in 1987 reiterated once again the Soviet official position that “diplomatic relations” could not be restored without a change in “Tel Aviv’s aggressive policy in the Near East.” The meeting in Helsinki, it stressed, represented “no more” than “contacts at the working level between consular employees of the two countries’ foreign ministries on questions concerning Soviet property in Israel, and also Soviet citizens living permanently in that country” (Irwin,1987).
Perhaps, then, relations with Israel are not as”normalized” as many would like them to be. That is, the Soviets still seem to be on the Arab side of the fence, although the Soviet Union is supporting the moderates in this case instead of the more radical groups who would be unwilling to make concessions in Israel’s case. However, as stated earlier, Moscow is still treading carefully so as not to strain its ties with Arab states. For example, the Soviets having agreed to start direct flights between Moscow and Tel Aviv, is now holding back in the face of Arab anger. Furthermore, on January 29, 1990, the duputy Soviet foreign minister told the head of the Israeli consular delegation in Moscow that the exodus of Soviet Jews should not be used to dispossess Palestinians (Economist, 1990). The direct flights may not be allowed to begin until Israel agrees to negotiate with the PLO, which could mean never. Even the Soviet’s permissiveness in the area of Jewish emigration is not viewed positively by Arab states. “In Arab eyes the new Soviet immigrants to Israel represent a powerful shot of adrenalin into the Zionist enemy’s bloodstream. They want President Mikhail Gorbachev to stop the Jews from coming” (Economist, 1990). However, Israel obviously disagrees with this policy which places the Soviet Union in a difficult position. Yitzhak Shamir, Likud Prime Minister, declared that a “big Israel” was needed to absorb “a big immigration” (Economist, 1990). By linking the questions of immigration and territory, Mr. Shamir upset the United States, embarrassed Gorbachev, and may have prevented the influx of Soviet Jewry from gathering momentum.
Nevertheless, negotiations between the Soviet Union and Israel have continued despite the inherent difficulties involved. In fact, a positive atmosphere for the further expansion of political, cultural, and economic relations is present in the international communities’ desire for a peaceful resolution in the area and by the Soviet Union’s support of moderate factions. Furthermore, commercial contacts have begun to develop and tourist exchanges are taking place (Duncan, 1989). The first indication that the Soviet government was rethinking its policy towards Israel was Izvestiya’s publishing on May 12, 1989, of a telegram from Israeli President Chaim Herzog on the occasion on the fourtieth anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe (Rubenstein, 1989). In printing the Israeli message on the annual memorium, Moscow gave rare diplomatic affirmation of Israel’s right to exist. By the time that (then) Prime Minister Shimon Peres met Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze at the UN in New York in late October, the Soviet-Israeli dialogue had become the object of intense international scrutiny.
At this point, a brief recap of present Soviet relations with Israel will be helpful in putting the aforementioned information into perspective. In 1985, indications of an immanent Soviet restoration of diplomatic relations with Israel and an easing of restrictions on the emigration of Soviet Jews were heard with increasing frequency from Soviet sources and foreign dignitaries who visited Moscow or dealt with Soviet officials abroad. However, both the summit and the party congress came and went with no change. For several months, there was virtual silence. Then, in early April 1986, the Soviets proposed a meeting in Helsinki to discuss consular affairs. Although nothing came of the one-day session, periodic discussions throughout the year that followed produced a low level breakthrough: in July 1987, a Soviet consular delegation arrived in Israel, the first visit by Soviet diplomats in more than twenty years. The ostensible purposes of this delegation were to survey the property of the Russian Orthodox Church and check on the conditions of the Soviet citizens living in Israel; the actual reasons were more political and far-reaching. In late July 1988, rather than risk the nonrenewal of its delegation’s visas, Moscow admitted an unofficial Israeli consular delegation. Since then, each side has granted limited extensions.
There are indications of a gradual thaw in Soviet policy toward Israel. First, contacts between Soviet and Israeli officials are continuing as the game of diplomatic “cat and mouse” continues. Second, there has been an increase in Soviet Jewish emigration. Third, virulent, anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israeli propaganda has abated. Finally, the gradual improvement in Polish and Hungarian relations with Israel, whose purpose is eventual diplomatic normalization, could have taken place at that time only with Moscow’s approval. All of the preceeding suggests that Gorbachev wants an international conference, if only to establish the Soviet Union’s equality with the Unitied States in the Arab-Israeli arena.
Yet, as stated earlier, a balanced policy toward the Middle East is being attempted by the Soviet Union. For example, Shevardnadze told Israeli Minister of Science and Technology Ezer Weizman that “the status of the Soviet and Israeli ‘consular groups’ would be ‘regulated.’ This explicit recognition of consular status constituted an incremental step towards official diplomatic relations. The Soviets simultaneously upgraded the PLO mission in Moscow to embassy status as they continued efforts to maintain a balanced position” (Duncan, 1990). In sum, then, the Soviet Union has long wanted to be accepted into the great power game of negotiating peace in the Middle East. The Israelis, once aloof, now appear to be more approachable. They want to encourage the emigration of Soviet Jews—their “ascent” to the Jewish homeland. The two countries now have an indirect means of diplomacy, and visits have been paid to Moscow by Israel’s agriculture minister, Mr. Avraham Katz-Oz, and by the more redoubtable science minister, Mr. Ezer Weizman. In addition, independent-minded Estonia and Georgia have sent cultural delegations on reconaissance to Israel.
Relations between the Soviet Union and Israel can be characterized as tentative but desireable. The Soviets face considerable difficulties in their attempts to normalize relations with Israel both internationally and domestically. The threat which Soviet relations with Israel poses to the Arab states in the Middle East is considerable. Moscow will be forced to employ considerable finesse in order to maintain diplomatic relations with her Arab clients while simultaneously pursuing relations with Israel, which is a “dirty word” in most Arab states. Domestically, a normalization of relations with Israel may cause difficulties for the Soviet Union in terms of its Muslim population. The international Muslim community has an extraordinary degree of unity. Hence, restoration of ties with Israel, anathema to most Muslims, could spark protests from the Soviet Union’s Islamic population.
Nevertheless, the Soviet Union will eventually normalize relations with averting any sort of military escalation involving the Soviet Union vis a vis the United States.
Taking into consideration the events in the Persian Gulf, advances in diplomatic relations may be obstructed for a time, but will probably resume after the conflict there is resolved. The domestic situation within the Soviet Union is more precarious in this context, however. That is, if Gorbachev is overthrown or becomes considerably more conservative in his outlook, relations with Israel will be seriously endangered. Finally, unless the Soviet leadership is able to reconcile its obligations to individual clients using multi-lateral diplomacy and commitments to regional goals, its Middle East policy will be hostage to the goals and behavior of its individual clients.
In conclusion, no country, least of all a superpower such as the Soviet Union, can disregard the constraints and requirements of a changing international environment, one less and less amenable to old formulas and presumptions. In the Soviet case, intellectuals and various members of the foreign policy establishment have known this for some time, and over the last decade they have slowly created the foundation of a substantially different Soviet approach to international politics. When all these influences converge, especially in the presence of a leader like Gorbachev, great, even revolutionary, departures come more naturally. The international community can only hope that a continuance of Gorbachev’s “new thinking” will occur rather than a reversal of this attitude.
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