Diplomacy Flight Plan for Freedom
Monday, Dec. 30, 1985
By ELLIE MCGRATH
When Edgar Bronfman, chairman of the Seagram Co., flew to Moscow in September as president of the World Jewish Congress (W.J.C.), he was allowed to travel in his private jet, a relatively rare privilege for a Western visitor. At Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, he was received cordially by Kremlin officials. Bronfman’s stated objective was to ask the Soviets to lift emigration restrictions for Jews who want to leave the Soviet Union and to allow religious freedom for Jews who wish to remain. Earlier this month Bronfman made another visit to Moscow, and last week sources familiar with the talks confirmed that he has been serving as a conduit in tentative negotiations between the Soviets and Israelis, whose diplomatic relations were broken off by Moscow following the 1967 Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel. The highly secret purpose of these talks, say these sources: to engineer the airlift of possibly thousands of Soviet Jews to Israel.
The complex scheme, which involves the Soviet Union, France, Poland and Israel, probably would not take place until at least after the Soviet Communist Party Congress in late February. The plan is to move the Soviet Jews first to Poland and then airlift them to Israel. In this way they would be prevented from attempting to emigrate directly to the U.S. or other Western countries. Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres told TIME during a visit to Geneva last week that “the Soviets have always complained that those allowed to emigrate go to the U.S. instead of Israel. Well, I agree that it is in the interest of the Soviet Union as well as my own country that they go to Israel.” Peres, however, was cautious in his comments on the negotiations, saying only that Bronfman “got no concrete assurances whatever in Moscow.” The possibility of an airlift was looked upon skeptically at the U.S. State Department. In Moscow, diplomats from Western and Arab countries characterized reports of a pending airlift as “wishful thinking.”
Even so, the following scenario has been confirmed by sources in the U.S. who have been close to the negotiations. The plan for the airlift, they say, was Peres’ brainchild. When Bronfman visited the Soviet Union in September, he reportedly carried with him personal messages from Peres. One source with knowledge of the Bronfman visit insists that the communications indicated that if the Soviet Union were to release a significant number of Jews and renew diplomatic relations with Israel, it could perhaps have a larger role in Middle East peace negotiations. If the Soviets delivered the Syrians to the conference table, Peres allegedly implied, the Israelis might return part of the Golan Heights to Syria. In late October, Peres met with French President Francois Mitterrand in Paris. After that meeting, Peres publicly announced that an airlift of Soviet Jews was being proposed, and said that France had offered to supply the planes.
Then three weeks ago, Poland entered the picture. Polish Leader General Wojciech Jaruzelski arrived unexpectedly in Paris for talks with Mitterrand. The meeting brought the French President criticism from his supporters, including Prime Minister Laurent Fabius.
Neither leader would comment on the subject of the discussions, but sources now indicate that the two talked about an air link for Soviet Jews to Israel via Poland. Such discussions are, however, denied by Jaruzelski’s aides, and Israeli officials dismiss a broker role for Poland.
Indeed, Budapest and Bucharest have been mentioned in the Moscow discussions as possible transit points, according to one source. Yet two weeks ago Bronfman visited Warsaw and, say W.J.C. sources, discussed with Jaruzelski the emigration of Soviet Jews.
Whatever the exact state of these negotiations, everyone involved has < something to gain from an airlift of Soviet Jews. It might serve to increase trade between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, now restricted by the Jackson- Vanik amendment, which ties Soviet-American trade to improvements in human rights, particularly Jewish emigration.
For his middle-man role, Jaruzelski might win some points on human rights, perhaps enough to erase U.S. trade sanctions against Poland. Jaruzelski is already making moves in that direction: when Bronfman visited him in Warsaw, the general agreed to make pension payments to Polish Jews living in Israel and to restore Jewish monuments in Poland.
For now, at least, the major players are noncommittal. As observed in Paris last week by Samuel Zivs, a law professor at the Soviet Academy of Sciences and himself a Jew: “There must not be too much noise made around it. In other words, it must be pursued in the ways that Henry Kissinger once understood so well.”
Skeptics at the U.S. State Department point out that the Soviet Union remains intransigent on its emigration policies.
While 51,300 Soviet Jews were allowed to leave the country in 1979, only about 1,200 are expected to leave this year. And a Western diplomat in the Soviet Union insists that two weeks ago Bronfman met with Vadim Zagladin, a Central Committee functionary, and went away “empty-handed.” There is one sign of a thaw. Last month Jewish leaders were notified that Eliyahu Essas, the leader of the Jewish religion and culture movement in the Soviet Union, would be allowed to leave the country.
Essas, 42, a mathematician, has been waiting for an exit visa for twelve years. Some Jewish leaders are optimistic about an airlift.
Says one source close to the negotiations: “The Soviets haven’t said when or how many, but they’ve indicated they’ll do it.” For Soviet Jews, this could be the first crack in what might be an opening door.
With reporting by Nancy Traver/Moscow and Adam Zagorin/Paris, with other bureaus