JERUSALEM, SEPT. 29 -- The Soviet Union has agreed to allow direct flights between Moscow and Tel Aviv, a major concession to Israel that could accelerate the wave of Soviet Jews immigrating to the Jewish state, officials here said today.
The air connection, which has been a key objective of Israeli policy during the last year, had been blocked by Moscow because of pressure from Arab states and concerns that Israel was settling Soviet immigrants in the occupied territories. The decision to open the route continues what has been a significant warming of Soviet-Israeli relations since the onset of the Persian Gulf crisis.
More than 100,000 Soviet Jews have moved to Israel in the last year, and hundreds of thousands more are expected to arrive in what is emerging as one of the greatest waves of Jewish immigration in Israel's history. Until now, the absence of direct flights to Tel Aviv has limited the pace of emigration from the Soviet Union. Soviet Jews have been forced to travel to Israel through East European capitals.
Direct air connections could mean that Israel would be able to bring thousands more immigrants to the country every day, a prospect welcomed by the government even though it would mean even greater disorder in the country's already frantic efforts to absorb the newcomers. The present rate of immigration is almost 20,000 people a month and is limited only by the available seats on flights to Israel.
Israeli officials offered no details tonight on the air agreement, saying only that flights would begin within a month. Israel radio said Soviet and Israeli officials still needed to work out detailed arrangements for the connection.
Israel radio said Soviet agreement for the air link was communicated in a telephone call from Finance Minister Valentin Pavlov to Israeli Transportation Minister Moshe Katzav on Friday, just before the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. It said Katzav had been authorized to publicize the move, but there was no word from Moscow on the agreement.
The Soviet action was the latest in a series of friendly gestures by Moscow toward Israel since the Helsinki meeting of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and President Bush earlier this month. One of its results was the formal acquiescence of Bush to greater Soviet involvement in Middle East affairs, including the search for a solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict.
A few days after the summit, Gorbachev invited two Israeli cabinet ministers to a meeting at the Kremlin, marking the first direct contact between a Soviet leader and members of an Israeli government. Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy is also due to meet with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze at the United Nations on Sunday.
The Soviet Union has not had full diplomatic relations with Israel since the Six Day War in 1967 and continues to advocate an international conference to resolve the conflicts of the Middle East, an idea opposed by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. However, Shamir has responded relatively warmly to the recent Soviet overtures, saying Israel also sees a place for Moscow in future Middle East diplomacy.
The Soviet decision on the air connection suggested that Gorbachev had decided to give up efforts to press Israel about the settlement of Jewish immigrants in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Following strong protests from Arab leaders, who argued that the immigrants would be used to bolster Israel's hold on the territories, Soviet officials refused earlier this year to implement an air agreement concluded between the Soviet state airline, Aeroflot, and Israel's El Al.
At the June U.S.-Soviet summit in Washington, Gorbachev demanded assurances from Israel that immigrants were not being settled in the territories and hinted that the exodus might be curtailed if Shamir did not comply. The government here responded with a series of private letters and public statements pointing out that it did not direct the Soviets to the territories and that few were moving there, although it has refused to stop immigrants from joining West Bank and Gaza settlements if they choose to do so.
At their meeting earlier this month, Gorbachev told Israeli Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai that his concerns about Soviet immigrants moving to the territories had been satisfied, Modai said in a recent interview.