While the expulsions of hundreds of "nonresident" Palestinians are splitting apart families born in the Israeli-occupied territories, a casual remark by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir reveals he was planning a gala welcome to the same territories for a new wave of Soviet Jews migrating to Israel.
Shamir's remark that a "big Israel" would be needed for Soviet Jewish immigrants was prompted by the US decision to stop admitting Soviet Jews with visas stamped for Israel commencing last October. Following this restriction, and the arrival in Israel of 3,600 Soviet Jews in December, the Israeli government projected that 100,000 Soviet Jews would arrive in Israel over the next three years. Some jubilant Zionists predict that as many as 750,000 of the estimated 2 million Jews in the Soviet Union will immigrate to Israel within the next six years.
Amendment Calls for "Free Choice"
The joy may be short-lived, however, because of an amendment to US immigration policy which was passed into law last November under American Jewish pressure. Some American Jews are unhappy with the forced immigration of Soviet Jews into Israel, when more than 90 percent of them would prefer to come to the US. The General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations meeting in Cincinnati last November passed a resolution stating that immigration "must become the free choice of more and more Soviet Jews."
The November amendment to the US immigration code calls for examination of the cases of Soviet citizens who had been refused refugee visas. Of those re-examined, 99.8 percent have been granted US immigration visas. The US Embassy in Moscow has handed out 200,000 applications to Soviet citizens, few of whom are planning to go to Israel. Since the US quota for Soviet refugees is 50,000 per year, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service reports that 80 percent of the present Soviet refugees are Jews, this means that 40,000 Soviet Jews per year will be diverted from the anticipated immigration to Israel. With the new US criteria for admittance of Soviet refugees in place, there is no foreseeable refugee stampede to Israel.
In spite of allegations of Soviet discrimination, most Soviet Jews have done fairly well under communism, despite onerous religious and cultural restrictions. The Israeli press has noted that a large number of Soviet Jews are engineers, scientists and other professionals.
The spreading political upheaval in the Soviet Union has raised fears about their continued economic security. Because glasnost has been accompanied by deepening economic troubles, including new food shortages, the outlook is for worse times for every Russian, and possible reappearance of age-old national and racial antagonisms that were suppressed but not eliminated under the Russian communist hegemony. This has raised legitimate fears among Soviet Jews that anti-Semitism could again become widespread.
It is conceded even by ardent Zionists, however, that the present mass immigration is propelled by economic concerns rather than by feelings of Jewish identity. Although the US has made policy statements to the contrary, the Soviet Jews are considered by most Israelis as economic immigrants rather than as political refugees fleeing persecution. Most of the recent immigrants, themselves, seem to look on Israel as a platform for finding some final destination with easier economic conditions. The impending wave of Soviet Jewish immigration to Israel, if it materializes, comes at a bad time for everyone. The immigration's financial demands strike Israel at a time of almost unprecedented economic crunch. For the Palestinians, the immigration portends a rapid increase in land confiscation and Jewish settlement activity in the occupied territories, and perhaps accelerated "nonresident" deportations under one pretext or another. Americans are being asked for various forms of financial assistance for the resettlement at a time of heavy US government deficits, forced cuts in domestic appropriations and a likely downturn in business activity.
Resettlement of masses of Soviet Jews could become a highly divisive issue between Israelis and diaspora Jews. Jewish Agency officials and the Israeli government have taken $20,000 per Soviet Jew as a working estimate of the costs of resettlement in Israel. Thus, the resettlement of 100,000 refugees over three years would amount to $2 billion. To raise $2 billion, $500 million was allocated to diaspora Jews, and $1.5 billion to the Israeli government. Of the $500 million from diaspora Jewish organizations, $350 million was assigned to the American Jewish federations. The Jewish Agency, however, has now increased the quota for funds to be raised in the United States by American Jews for the resettlement of Soviet Jews in Israel to $600 million.
Having no money of its own to finance a $1.5 billion venture to resettle Soviet Jews, the Israeli government is looking to the American government for the necessary financing. An initial amount of $400 million has been suggested, the probable forerunner of higher requests. One off-budget method that had been proposed is for the US government to guarantee Israeli government bonds to be floated on Wall Street, as was done in 1988 to refinance some of Israel's high-interest military debts.
This raises the awkward question of, "If it is possible to float US-guaranteed bonds for housing Soviet Jews in Israel, why is it not possible to float such bonds to remedy the critical shortage of affordable housing for Americans in the United States?"
An Underfunded Infrastructure
Israel has the highest burden of debt in the world on a per capita basis, as a consequence of bloated military expenditures through the years. Fiscal mismanagement and corruption have also led to a series of business disasters. (See the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 1988.) As a result, the Israeli infrastructure, including building programs and domestic services, has been scandalously underfunded for the past several years. It is this weakened economy that is preparing to receive tens of thousands of Soviet Jews.
Even in the absence of a mass immigration of Soviet Jews, Israel will experience a financial debacle unless America responds with grants and other monetary arrangements far exceeding the current level of US gifts and loans to Israel.
Beyond these economic questions, concrete plans do not exist for the absorption of a new wave of immigrants to Israel, despite denials of this by Simcha Dinitz, chairman of the Jewish Agency. The prerequisites for resettlement -- housing and jobs -- are in poor supply in Israel. Nor is there any organizational structure for the handling of massive immigration.
One third of the Falasha who came to Israel from Ethiopia five years ago live under miserable conditions in temporary housing. There is not yet agreement on where to put the needed permanent housing. The tendency is to build in the least desirable parts of Israel, the Negev and northern Galilee -- from where the present Jewish population has been moving out -- and in the West Bank.
Israel's refugee resettlement program is in stark contrast to its American equivalent. Appropriations to handle 111,000 expected refugees from all countries for the fiscal year 1990 under the budgets of the Health and Human Services Department, the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service total $511 million. This works out to $4,600 per refugee received in the US, as compared to the $20,000 required for the resettlement of a Soviet Jewish refugee in Israel. Thus the resettlement of 100,000 Soviet Jews in Israel, estimated at $2 billion, would cost $460 million for the same number of refugees in the US. The large discrepancy is important because the American Jewish community and American taxpayers in general will undoubtedly have to pick up the bulk of Israel's $2 billion cost.
The main reason for the difference in Israeli and US resettlement costs is that little vacant housing exists in Israel. It must be built immediately if there is to be an influx of Soviet Jews, but because of the intifada, there is a shortage of the low-paid Palestinian labor used in the building industry.
Although there is a shortage of affordable housing in the US, 100,000 new residents amounts to only a small increment of the total American population that could be absorbed into existing units and housing programs.
Even more serious than the jobs and housing questions is that the Shamir government evidently intends to use the refugee situation as the coup de grace to any prospects of a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To the consternation of US Secretary of State James Baker III, who last year called upon Shamir to abandon his vision of "greater Israel," the Israeli prime minister put his new dream bluntly: "With big immigration, we need the Land of Israel [Biblical term including the occupied territories] and a big, strong state of Israel. We will need a lot of room to absorb everyone..."
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