All Writings
September 11, 1987

Israel Needs Quid Pro Quo to Agree to Soviet Ties

Even before Secretary General Gorbachev came to power, the Soviet leadership had concluded that severing diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967 to placate its Arab clients was a major political mistake. It locked the Soviets into policies and commitments towards their Arab clients from which they could not easily extract themselves.

For the past two decades, the Soviet Union has been blatantly hostile toward Israel. It supplied radical Syria and Libya with tens of billions of dollars in arms; supported numerous shadowy terrorist organizations which struck at Israel; sided numerous times with the Arab states in their effort to expel Israel from the United Nations; and, more recently, worked diligently to reunite the PLO and further radicalized that organization.

The irony is that during the past 20 years this Soviet policy did not win new Arab friends; in fact Soviet stature among its Arab client states deteriorated. Iraq has become disillusioned with the Soviets for not stopping the flow of weapons to Iran and for not exerting sufficient pressure to end the war. Egypt expelled 20,000 Soviet advisors in 1972. Colonel Qaddafi of Libya has had second thoughts about Soviet commitments to his security in the wake of the American strike on his country. Even the PLO felt betrayed by the Soviets in the aftermath of its stunning defeat in Lebanon in 1982.

Only Syria remained outwardly close to the USSR, and that relationship rests precariously on the health of President Hafezal-Assad.

Gorbachev, unencumbered by the pitfalls of his predecessors, has initiated a new Middle East policy far more sensitive to the changing psychological, political and military conditions of the region. These changing circumstances include: the tacit acceptance of Israel as a sovereign state by the remaining confrontation Arab countries; the establishment of peace between Egypt and Israel; the rise of fundamentalism in Iran; and the continuing war between Iran and Iraq. All have created a new political equation that calls for greater sensitivity and political sophistication not only toward the Arab states, but toward Israel as well.

Gorbachev's astuteness and political initiative have already paid considerable dividends: the leasing of Soviet oil tankers to Kuwait; persuading Assad of Syria to meet with Saddam Hussein of Iraq; uniting the PLO's conflicting factions; supporting Jordan in its plea for an international peace conference; expanding cultural ties with Israel; increasing the immigration of Soviet Jews to 800 a month; and giving Egypt an additional 25 years to pay $3 billion in military credits. Most recently – not withstanding the current political and military turmoil in the Persian Gulf — the Soviet Union has reached a general agreement with Iran to cooperate on large-scale economic projects and to widen their political cooperation.

For the Soviets, then, a resumption of diplomatic ties with Israel is only a small part of a new, cohesive Middle East policy designed to project Soviet power and influence within this strategic region. The new Soviet initiative is aimed at consolidating relations with its Arab radical clients –Syria, Iraq, Libya — and opening the door to moderate Arab countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Moreover, by establishing direct diplomatic relations with Israel, the Soviets can now exert greater pressure on Israel on such important issues as Israel's medium-range missile development program, its arms shipments to Afghani resistance fighters and its position on Palestinian rights.

More importantly, Gorbachev's potential gain from Soviet rapprochement with Israel transcends the Middle East. Eager for a major nuclear arms reduction accord in Europe with the United States, Soviet leaders know and appreciate the commitment to Israel of the American public in general, and the American Jewish community in particular, and how that might affect Soviet relations with Washington. Good relations with one will certainly help relations with the other.

Although the resumption of diplomatic relations would benefit the Soviet Union more than Israel, Israel seems considerably more eager to establish full diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. This may be attributed, as one Israeli official put it, to the emotional ties that European-born Israeli citizens have to Eastern Europe. More important, however, is a powerful desire to break the lingering sense of isolation that all of Israel has felt for 39 years. Israel does not seem to be pushing the Soviets for even the smallest of "concessions." For example, having secured Israel's agreement for a Soviet consulate in Tel Aviv, the Soviet Union has not allowed a similar consulate in Moscow.

Israel had no diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union for 20 years and has managed rather well without it. Israel should, of course, seek a normalization of relations. However, Israel must press the Soviet Union to make concessions in the following areas: increasing the number of exit permits for Soviet Jews; playing a constructive role in any future international peace conference; using its influence to moderate Libya's, Syria's and the PLO's uncompromising stance on Israel; persuading other Communist and leftist Third World nations to recognize Israel; and ceasing publication of anti-Semitic materials in the USSR.

The Soviet Union now has the opportunity to develop normal diplomatic relations with Israel and thus considerably enhance its position throughout the region. Israel, however, must remain vigilant in these negotiations and insist upon a quid pro quo. Otherwise, Israel's eagerness will certainly, as it already has, be further exploited by this master strategist Gorbachev — all in the name of "glasnost."