This week, for the first time since the Soviet Union broke diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967, high-level officials of the two countries met for pre-announced talks. The meeting, convened at Soviet initiative, was ostensibly to discuss Russian Orthodox Church property in Jerusalem. The plan had been to confer for two days--rather a long time to chew over a real-estate matter that could have been dealt with routinely at a much lower level. As it happens, the talks ended after only 90 minutes. Israel says that more are likely through other channels. The Soviets say that they have nothing in mind for now. No matter. The door that was opened in Helsinki remains ajar.
What are the Russians up to? At a minimum, they have signaled a readiness to get back into more active Middle East diplomacy should the opportunity come along. For the last 19 years they have avoided all formal contacts with Israel while strongly supporting the Arab states and movements most hostile to it. In consequence they have been dealt out of all serious efforts to defuse the Arab-Israel confrontation, from the disengagement agreements in Sinai and the Golan Heights to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty and up through recent diplomatic efforts to find common negotiating ground. Now the Soviets have reestablished direct contact on an innocuous issue, setting a precedent that they can build on if they choose.