MIDEAST: Netanyahu Ignores President, and Wife

  • by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler (tel aviv)
  • Tuesday, August 31, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

'The children must be allowed to stay, this is a moral imperative,' the crowd was told by left-wing legislator Dov Henin.

Earlier this month the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu decided to expel the 400 children while allowing another 800 to remain.

Israel is confronting an issue with which many wealthy Western societies are also grappling: should birth confer citizenship?

The right to citizenship for anyone born in a particular country dates back to 17th Century English Common Law. But in many western countries with large minorities of migrants -- legal and illegal -- those who would continue that enlightened policy are being challenged by nationalists stoking hatred and intolerance of 'the other'.

Since the early '90s when it started to bar most Palestinians from working inside Israel, successive Israeli governments have encouraged tens of thousands of foreign workers to take jobs in building, farming and home care services.

Some of them, mainly from south-east Asia and Africa, overstayed their work visas, continued to work illegally and raised families here. Israeli interior ministry officials estimate there are currently over 200,000 migrant workers in the country, more than half without permits. About 1,200 children who were born in the country remain here.

What to do with those children has been hotly debated by Israelis for the past year.

The government continually put off a decision. But two weeks ago it finally decided on a 'compromise' -- allowing 800 who have lived in Israel for more than five years, speak Hebrew and attend school to remain, but giving the 400 others, most of whom are less than five years old, until the end of the month to leave voluntarily with their parents or face expulsion to their parents' home countries.

Netanyahu tried to straddle both sides. He told his cabinet, 'On one hand, this is a humanitarian problem. We all feel and understand the hearts of children. But on the other hand, there are Zionist considerations. We must ensure the Jewish character of the State of Israel.'

The prime minister called it a 'demographic threat': 'We do not want to create an incentive for the influx of hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants.'

As the deadline for the deportations draws near, Netanyahu suddenly finds his policy challenged from several unexpected sources -- from Aliza Olmert, the wife of his predecessor, from his own wife, Sarah, and from Shimon Peres, Israel's state President.

In a letter to the hardline Interior Minister Eli Yishai, a crucial partner in the Netanyahu coalition, and the spearhead of the expel-the-children campaign, Sarah Netanyahu wrote, 'As the mother of two sons, and a psychologist in the public service, I ask you from the bottom of my heart to use your authority -- allow most of the 400 children to stay in Israel.'

Mrs. Netanyahu's letter made clear that she had taken up the issue with her husband: 'Long before the government decision, I approached my husband, the prime minister, and told him I believed the State of Israel must find a solution for the children. I would like to believe this contributed somewhat to the prime minister's position to allow 800 of the children to remain in Israel,' she wrote.

She added, 'I'm confident that within the context of the government resolution and your powers as minister you can find a creative solution in a manner that does not harm immigration policy or Israel's national interests as a Jewish state.'

In a separate letter, to the prime minister, an umbrella organisation of Holocaust survivors also expressed revulsion at the planned expulsions. 'The State of Israel is founded on a Jewish heart and conscience. We who experienced the Holocaust are overcome by a sense of suffocation and shame.'

Another left-wing legislator, Ilan Gilon, told the rally here that should the deportation go ahead, he personally would be willing to hide children from the immigration authorities and their special Oz unit which tracks illegal workers.

Aliza Olmert, when interviewed on Israeli Army Radio, intimated that she would do the same. 'This decision is a moral scar on our society. If the government carries it through, it will provide ammunition for all those in the international community who are laying in wait to ambush us,' the wife of the former premier said.

She scoffed at the contention that allowing the children to stay would encourage more illegal migrants to try to get into Israel and therefore accelerate the transformation of Israel.

Yishai, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, rejected all the appeals for a change of policy, including that of the prime minister's wife: 'These foreigners came to Israel, some of them illegally, and gave birth to illegal children here,' he said.

He had earlier accused the migrant workers of using their children as 'human shields' and of 'bringing diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatatis and AIDS.'

When asked whether Yishai was guilty of racism, Mrs. Olmert said, 'His arguments are nothing but cheap demagoguery and primitive demonisation.'

With many of the 400 families scurrying to get an exemption from the expulsion sword hanging over their heads, President Peres spoke out forcefully: 'It is unthinkable that 400 children born in Israel who feel Israeli, and who live like Israeli children should be expelled,' he said. He urged the government to reconsider the move, arguing that 'the deportations would be harmful to Israel and to the country's moral fibre.'

Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureatte, carries moral authority both within Israel and in the international community. But the government has pointedly ignored his call completely.

Meanwhile, Yishai's racist slurs cut little ice with eight-year old Maria, born in Tel Aviv after her mother came here from the Phillipines to care for an elderly Israeli couple. Holding her mother's hand after the rally she said in unaccented Hebrew, 'I'm staying here. This is my home.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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