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U.S. Consulted Jewish Groups on Soviet Emigre Quota : Diplomacy: The talks defused what could have been a firestorm of controversy.


WASHINGTON — The Bush Administration obtained advance support of American Jewish leaders before imposing new rules that had the effect of diverting most Soviet Jewish emigres from the United States to Israel, according to informed sources.

Administration officials and Jewish leaders both said that the consultations defused what could have turned into a firestorm of controversy.

However, the refugee plan, announced last fall, may also have had the unintended consequence of swelling the population of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Washington considers the settlements to be obstacles to peace.

An official of a Jewish organization who followed the consultations closely said Administration officials "knew going into this that it was a very sensitive issue. They also knew that if they didn't handle it very well, it could come back to hurt them."

For years, the U.S. government accepted as refugees virtually any Soviet citizen who could get out of the country. But that policy was swamped last year when Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's government ended most of its emigration restrictions. Moscow permitted 235,000 people to leave the country, far more than the United States was ready to accept. Most of the emigres are Jewish.

The Administration last September set a quota of 125,000 refugees worldwide for this year, including about 50,000 Soviet citizens. The quota for Soviets was up 10,000 from the previous year, but it was clearly not enough to meet the growing need.

The announcement was surprisingly non-controversial. Jewish community leaders who previously had pressed for admission of all Soviet Jews who want to live in the United States quietly acquiesced in the Administration's decision.

Before the announcement was made, the Administration convinced the Jewish leaders that the old open-door policy was prohibitively expensive. Under U.S. law, the government pays the cost of bringing refugees to this country and supports them until they are able to get on their feet economically.

"What had been essentially an abstract argument got focused on a more realistic assessment. . . ," said the Jewish organization official.

Although Administration officials and Jewish community leaders insist that the change was driven entirely by economic considerations, the new Administration policy is the one that Israel has urged for years. Yitzhak Shamir, now the caretaker prime minister, repeatedly called on the Administration to reduce the U.S. refugee quota so that Soviet Jews would be more likely to settle in Israel.

By agreeing not to oppose the Administration's immigration restrictions, the U.S. Jewish organizations ended what had been a rare split between them and the Israeli government.

From the Administration's standpoint, the refugee policy has one important drawback. Although Israeli officials insist that there is no government policy to settle the Soviet Jews in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, at least some of the immigrants have migrated to the occupied territories.

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