In April 1987 General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev declared that the absence of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Israel "cannot be considered normal." This comment reflects a growing belief among Soviet policymakers that the rupture in Soviet-Israeli relations, dating from the Six-Day War of 20 years ago, should at last be repaired. And, to give it more significance, the remark was uttered in the presence of Moscow’s oldest Middle Eastern ally—and Israel’s most implacable adversary—Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
Three months later, in July, an official Soviet consular delegation arrived in Jerusalem, including a deputy head of the Middle East department of the Soviet foreign ministry. Carrying Gorbachev’s air of glasnost with them as they traveled, the Russian visitors set about attending a series of cordial and well-publicized meetings with various Israelis at all levels of society.
These tentative moves toward an opening to Israel mark a new direction in Soviet policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, a deliberate effort by the Gorbachev leadership to broaden Soviet options in the Middle East. Gradually but consistently, Moscow is showing greater willingness to make practical and ideological concessions to improve relations with Middle Eastern states from Egypt and Israel to the Persian Gulf.
The primary Soviet objective, to set up limitations on the military and political influence of the United States, remains unchanged. Both in the Gulf and the Arab-Israeli theater, this objective now dictates a policy of conflict avoidance, possibly even of conflict resolution, to eliminate pretexts for American military engagement. Thus, the Soviet Union is taking a constructive stance in new mediation moves at the United Nations to bring about a cease-fire in the seven-year-old Iran-Iraq war.
After nearly two decades without significant official contact between Israel and the Soviet Union, Gorbachev has seized the initiative. But the process was slow in getting under way.
The first visible step was an informal meeting in Paris in July 1985 between the Soviet and Israeli ambassadors to France. Substantive reports of
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