JERUSALEM, JUNE 18 -- Israel said today it has granted visas for the first official Soviet visit in 20 years, a step that could lead to a significant change in relations with Moscow and an enhanced Soviet role in the Middle East peace process.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ehud Gol said the visas were issued yesterday and will be processed by the Dutch Embassy in Moscow, which handles Israel's consular affairs in the Soviet Union.
Gol said the date of the visit has not been set. Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov said in Moscow Tuesday the visit could come as early as mid-July.
Gerasimov said the delegation will try "to resolve consular questions relating to Soviet citizens in Israel, Soviet property in Israel and put in order its political status."
In granting the visas, Israel dropped a longstanding demand for a reciprocal visit in hopes that the Kremlin, which severed diplomatic ties with the Jewish state in 1967, will agree to an Israeli visit to Moscow later.
"In order to advance an understanding between our two sides, we hope the Soviet Union will realize there is a need to take the same steps we have taken," an official said.
"Every visa that was requested has been granted," Gol told reporters in Jerusalem.
He declined to say how many visas were issued for the Soviet delegation, expected to be led by Yevgeny Antipov, a deputy director of consular affairs.
Israel's approval of an official Soviet visit could lead to a significant change in Soviet-Israeli ties, analysts said. Moscow broke relations with Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War as a show of solidarity with the Arab states defeated by Israel.
The two countries have not exchanged official visits since then. Last August, Soviet and Israeli diplomats met in Helsinki for their first open talks in 19 years, but the scheduled two-day meeting broke up after just 90 minutes because the Soviets balked at Israeli attempts to discuss increasing emigration of Soviet Jews.
Israel has insisted on an increase as a condition for restoring full diplomatic relations. Emigration has risen sharply this year, with 871 Jews leaving Moscow in May for the highest monthly total in six years.
The Soviet Union has maintained that full ties cannot be restored until Israel withdraws from Arab territory seized in 1967.
Diplomatic sources in Israel have noted Moscow's desire to expand its role in the Middle East under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and its hope of spreading its influence by helping to convene an international peace conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Efforts to arrange a Soviet visit to Israel have been under way for at least a year, but have been hampered by Moscow's refusal to allow a similar Israeli visit.
In Moscow Tuesday, Gerasimov emphasized that a reciprocal visit is "out of the question now" because Israel "has no property and we have no Israeli citizens permanently residing in our country."
An unofficial delegation of Israelis from moderate and leftist political parties is to visit the Soviet Union soon at Moscow's invitation.