MOSCOW — Western diplomats said Wednesday that two Israelis recently visited Moscow on official business, spurring speculation that a dramatic increase in the number of Jewish emigrants might be imminent.
The account of the visits came as the State Department said in Washington that it has "reliable information" tending to confirm reports that the wife of Soviet dissident Andrei D. Sakharov has been granted her 18-month-old request to leave the country for medical treatment.
Western diplomats said one of the Israeli visitors reportedly represented the Israeli national airline El Al. The visit fed recent rumors that the Soviet Union would allow a large number of Jewish emigrants to be taken out in an airlift.
"Nobody from El Al has visited Moscow," airline spokesman Nahman Klieman said in a denial from Jerusalem. "No one from El Al was part of any discussions on a plan to fly Jews out of Russia."
"If you don't have any migrants or tourists, you don't need any air service," said one Western diplomat. "Perhaps they are planning some charter flights."
No Air Agreement
The diplomat noted that the two nations do not have a bilateral air agreement "and don't need one."
However, he also cautioned that the Israeli visits could have had a "quite mundane" purpose, with long-term implications rather than a sudden increase in exit permits.
"The rumors are growing in the pre-summit hothouse atmosphere," said another Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified. But he said a dramatic Soviet move could not be ruled out.
The second Israeli representative to visit Moscow was identified as a specialist in property claims.
Moscow, as part of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's campaign to widen the Kremlin's influence in the Middle East, has made clear its desire for better relations with Israel. Diplomatic relations were severed when Israel defeated Moscow's ally, Syria, during the 1967 Six-Day War.
Moscow would increase its chances for involvement in Middle East peace talks if it had diplomatic representation with both sides, as does the United States.
In return, Israel might be able to gain the release of the thousands of Jews wishing to leave the Soviet Union.
From a high point of 51,000 Soviet emigrants in 1979, the number fell steadily to 922 last year. Through the first nine months of this year, it stood at 997.
Israel has long sought direct Moscow-Tel Aviv flights to counter a "dropout" rate as high as 70% among emigrants who reach Vienna and then opt to travel to the United States.
The Soviet Union has been making steady progress at restoring its influence in the Middle East.
In September, it announced that it had established ties with Oman, which lies beside the entrance to the strategic Persian Gulf. This month it gave a restrained reception to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.
A Soviet journalist with ties to the KGB security police was the source of the first report that Yelena Bonner, wife of dissident physicist Andrei D. Sakharov, has been granted permission to go abroad.
Bonner and her husband have been banished to the city of Gorky for dissident activities. Moscow has not confirmed that Bonner has permission to go abroad, but a spokesman for Amnesty International, the human rights organization, said Bonner will fly into Vienna, probably today, with her ultimate destination not known.