Although frustrated by the meager progress made by Secretary of State James Baker, Israeli officials said they were cautiously optimistic the Soviet Union might light a few sparks in the Middle East peace process.

Israel also welcomed Sunday an apparent softening in the Arab boycott against companies that do business with the Jewish state, but officials noted that the Arab states were still far from eager to establish commercial ties with Israel.Left-leaning lawmakers, meanwhile, demanded that the government prevent establishment of yet another Jewish settlement on the occupied West Bank, and Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip clashed once more with Israeli soldiers, who responded with tear gas and live ammunition.

A team from the Israeli Foreign Ministry met with counterparts from the Soviet Consulate in Tel Aviv to sort out the delicate details preceding a one-day visit Friday by Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh.

"There's a big `Handle with care' sign over the whole Bessmertnykh thing," a senior government official said.

Bessmertnykh's visit is the first by a Soviet foreign minister since Moscow broke ties with Israel after the 1967 Middle East War, and officials in Jerusalem are hopeful his appearance will lead to restoration of full diplomatic ties.

The two countries established consulates in Tel Aviv and Moscow in 1989 and have gradually warmed to each other as 200,000 Soviets have immigrated to Israel.

Bessmertnykh's visit comes in the wake of Baker's trip, which produced decidedly flat results and has dampened expectations for any breakthrough in the longtime efforts at reconciling Israel and its Arab neighbors.