JERUSALEM, JULY 13 -- Soviet diplomats began the first official visit to Israel since Moscow broke off relations 20 years ago, with their leader expressing support here today for an international Middle East peace conference that would not impose solutions on any of the nations in the region.

Officials of both nations played down the significance of the visit of the eight-member delegation, which slipped into Israel late last night and is expected to remain here for at least two months. The head of the team insisted that they were here only on a consular mission to survey Russian-owned property and deal with problems of Soviet citizens residing here, although he conceded that a Soviet Middle East expert, identified as Alexei Chestikov, is part of the group.

Nonetheless, the Israelis, who have chafed at their longstanding diplomatic isolation from most of the East Bloc since their triumphant Six-Day War in 1967, appeared to welcome the visit as a first step toward restoring relations. Exceptions are activists in behalf of Soviet Jews. They denounced the visit and said they will protest publicly against the delegation.

Israeli reporters staked out the group for nearly four hours outside the Russian Orthodox Mission of the Moscow Patriarchate here, and team leader Yevgeny Antipov emerged with remarks that appeared designed to appeal to that wary enthusiasm without committing Moscow to anything concrete.

"We have only limited and technical tasks here and to speculate about it and to think {there are} some other tasks and purposes would be in the region of fantasy," Antipov said.

"Don't interpret it as a step toward establishing diplomatic or consular relations," said Antipov, who is deputy director of the consular department of the Soviet Foreign Ministry. "Normalization of the whole atmosphere in this region should be achieved through an international conference . . . under the auspices of the United Nations."

Still, Antipov echoed the views of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Israel's chief advocate of such a conference, in stressing that the meeting should be aimed at the achievement of agreements among the Middle Eastern countries involved without superpower coercion. "I believe it's too early to speak about it, but certainly if something will be imposed on the countries it won't last long," he said. "The solution lies in the compromise and good will from all the parties that participate."

Antipov made other friendly gestures, reciting the Hebrew expression boker tov -- "good morning" -- at the request of an Israel Army radio correspondent for use on Tuesday morning's broadcast. When asked what the next step in developments between the two nations might be, he smiled and recited a Russian expression, "Let's live and wait."

Peres was more low key, telling reporters he would meet with the group only if it requests such a session. "The Russians are always trying to minimize the importance of the delegation and I see no reason to put a microscope over it," he said. "They will be treated with courtesy but without exaggeration."

Another senior Israeli official, speaking not for attribution, said Israel viewed the delegation as having more symbolic than concrete importance. The Soviets, he said, were signaling their interest in opening new options in the Middle East without making a commitment to anything that might harm their status in the Arab world.

A more important signal, the official contended, was a recent message to Peres from Soviet diplomats that Moscow may be interested in pursuing what he called "a political dialogue" with Israel within a few weeks over an international peace conference and the terms for Moscow's role. Peres has insisted on two conditions: that Moscow restore diplomatic relations with Israel and that it permit Soviet Jews to emigrate here.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Peres' right-leaning coalition partner, opposes such a conference, saying it would allow the Soviet Union and the Arab states to dictate Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967. Shamir's aides insist Moscow remains rigid about playing a major role in peace talks, while Peres' supporters say the Soviets have signaled a degree of flexibility.

Israeli officials say they will insist on a reciprocal visit to the Soviet Union by an Israeli consular delegation and contend that the Soviets accept the principle of reciprocity. But Antipov told reporters there was "no basis for reciprocity. We don't have Israeli citizens living permanently in the Soviet Union and Israel doesn't have property."

Yuri Stern, spokesman for the Soviet Jewry Education and Information Center, an advocacy group here, disputed that claim. "We have properties in the Soviet Union -- the destroyed Jewish past, the synagogues and cemeteries that have been abandoned and neglected, and the Jews who remain in Soviet prisons," he said, He offered the names of two.