MOSCOW, JAN. 19 -- The Soviet Union will allow a visit to Moscow by an Israeli consular delegation, the first of its kind in more than 20 years, the Foreign Ministry announced today.
The Israelis' as yet unscheduled trip, the timing of which was discussed by Israeli and Soviet diplomats meeting in Helsinki, would cross another threshold in the evolving Soviet-Israeli relationship, although Kremlin spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov insisted that it does not signal a resumption of diplomatic relations.
Gerasimov said the purpose of the visit would be to get to know the work of the Netherlands Embassy, which has handled Israeli interests here since Moscow broke off ties with Tel Aviv during the 1967 Middle East war.
"As for the question of restoring diplomatic relations, it is confirmed once again from our side that movement in this area is only possible after a Middle East settlement," Gerasimov said at a regular news briefing for foreign and Soviet reporters.
In Israel, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ehud Gol said Israel welcomed the Soviet statement on the visit, but expressed "regrets that the Soviet Union again sets conditions on renewal of relations between the two countries."
The Soviet spokesman also stressed that an Israeli trip here would have no connection with a Soviet delegation now visiting Israel to handle problems involving Soviet citizens and Soviet property, previously handled through the Finnish Embassy. The first Soviet envoys arrived in Tel Aviv last July 13.
Soviet-Israeli diplomacy has taken a lower profile since envoys from the two countries first met in Helsinki in August 1986 amid heavy publicity. That meeting lasted only 90 minutes and, according to the Soviets, was broken up after the Israelis insisted on broadening the agenda to include Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union.
By lowering public attention since then, both sides appear to have moved closer to what they want. Jewish emigration rose sharply in 1987 -- 8,000 compared to less than 1,000 in 1986, although it was still far less than the record of 50,000 set in 1979. The Soviets' consular presence in Israel is now quietly established, without causing the stir in Soviet-Arab relations that an official resumption of diplomatic ties would have provoked.
The latest round in Soviet-Israeli diplomatic contacts in Helsinki had been kept quiet by both sides. Gerasimov did not name the senior Soviet diplomat involved in the talks, but described him as a middle-level Foreign Ministry diplomat.
By agreeing on an Israeli visit to Moscow, the Soviets have broken another barrier set up between the two sides in Helsinki in 1986. At that time, the Soviets asked for a consular trip to Israel but denied that the Israelis had any legitimate right to come to Moscow.
The Soviet consular team in Tel Aviv deals with problems of Soviet citizens living in Israel -- mostly relatives of emigres -- and settles claims involving Soviet property, most of it land belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Moscow still contends that any rapprochement with Israel depends on a just settlement in the Middle East. But in the last two years, it has said that ties could be resumed in the course of a settlement process, dropping its insistence that Israel first retreat from territories occupied in 1967.
Soviet policy in the Middle East is focused on convening an international conference that would include both Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Israel has said it will not participate in a conference with the Soviet Union until Moscow moves to reestablish diplomatic ties.
Gerasimov said that the Soviet side in Helsinki called on Israel today to take part "in an honest search for peace on the basis of the just interests of all states and people in the region."
"The Soviet Union for its part is ready to work actively in this direction," he said.