Everything, from the first moment, was planned. The small crew of six arrived at the venue just as the demonstration was starting - necessary equipment in hand – and began carrying out their instructions. The older one, carrying a professional camera on his shoulder, inquired what he should say if anyone asks who the film was for. "Say you're from Channel 2" replied the person in charge, a short man wearing jeans and an elegant button down shirt tucked neatly into his pants.
The man then clarified "when you grab someone to interview them, ask them three questions: What do you think about the problem with the infiltrators, what do you think about the government's handling of the problem, and what do you think about [Interior Minister] Eli Yishai's conduct on the issue."
The camera man went off to carry out his mission. After he left, four young men reported to the man in charge.
"Do you have the signs?" he asked them. As soon as they answered he continued: "very well. You two, go to the front of the stage where the speakers are. The two others, stand in the crowd. The television crews will be filming in both directions, documenting the speakers on stage as well as the crowd. You have to make sure the signs are on tape in either direction." This task, too, was carried out successfully.
The venue: the Hatikva neighborhood in south Tel Aviv during a large-scale demonstration three weeks ago protesting the presence of illegal infiltrators from Africa in the neighborhood. Giving out orders: Eli Yishai's campaign manager. The footage the crew filmed will likely be kept in a drawer somewhere, to be pulled out when general elections roll around. The large signs carried by the young men read: "Eli Yishai was right". While other MKs were competing for tomorrow's headline, Yishai was already preparing for the elections.
We have to admit that Yishai has been championing the issue of the infiltrators for over two years, mostly with talk, but occasionally with actions too. This week, for example, he facilitated the arrests of several hundred infiltrators from South Sudan. None were actually deported, but news of the arrest raids made their way to the African continent and could now prompt would-be infiltrators, who would have smuggled themselves into Israel to look for work, to think twice before making that decision. Regardless, if you go by the headlines in Israel and around the world, you could get the idea that every day ten planes packed with infiltrators make their way to Africa to take them back to their native countries.
The refugees are a small minority
Despite his clear desire to turn the infiltrator issue, which has by now become an enormous social issue, into personal political gain, Yishai is perhaps the only member of the cabinet who is walking the walk, where others are just talking the talk. Everyone has already come to the conclusion that the infiltrators cannot remain in Israel, period; that the deportation needs to be efficient, heavy-handed and uncompromising, until the last illegal resident had returned home.
Obviously refugees who were persecuted in their native countries are entitled to protection under international humanitarian conventions, which Israel honors, and they will be allowed to stay. Like the refugees who fled from Darfur. But those, according to official estimates, constitute a negligent percentage of the African infiltrators.
As far as Yishai is concerned, this is not just a social problem, nor is it merely a question of employment or personal safety. For him, this is a battle over the very character of the State of Israel, no less. He and his associates maintain that the organizations that support the infiltrators, usually emanating from the more delusional part of the Left, seek to blur the Jewish character of this country with these Africans. The fact that traditional Jewish values are growing more and more popular among the public makes it easier to use scare tactics: stories of assimilation and marriages between Jewish women and Sudanese men only serve to emphasize the urgency with which the problem must be resolved.
It is not just Yishai and his party, Shas. The National Union, a right-wing opposition party, also stands to gain quite a bit of political steam from the latest developments on the infiltrator front. National Union members have waged serious battles on the issue in the past. One time they took dozens of children of infiltrators to enjoy a day of fun at an upscale north Tel Aviv swimming pool (in an effort to show the residents of the richer neighborhoods what it was like to have infiltrators among them). They even obtained funds to rent rooms for African migrants in the northern neighborhoods. Sources in the party say that many people who are not the traditional National Union supporters said that they would vote for the party in the next election because of their policy on infiltrators.
While the relevant government ministries deal mainly with battles over who gets credit for what and who is subordinate to whom, there appears to be a move underway to appoint a special minister to handle the issue of African infiltrators. Currently, quite a few ministries are involved in the issue, but there is not one single body that sees the big picture and oversees the entire endeavor.
The Interior Ministry is responsible for granting or denying visas and for the oversight and deportation aspects. The Finance Ministry is responsible for funding detention facilities, flights to take the migrants back to their native countries and the deportation grant – a sum of 1,000 euros that Israel has promised to pay migrants who choose to leave voluntarily. The Public Security Ministry is responsible for arrests, investigations and imprisonment. The Defense Ministry is responsible for securing the borders, for the ongoing construction of the fence along the border with Egypt and the capture of infiltrators trying to cross the border. The Foreign Ministry is responsible for coordinating the re-integration of the migrants in their homelands or a third country.
Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. According to MK Danny Danon (Likud), who heads the Knesset lobby on this issue, the situation warrants the appointment of an existing minister (as opposed to creating a new ministry) to coordinate the efforts. "Obviously there will be some complex political problems, and most likely some of the ministers will be unhappy that some of their responsibilities are being taken from them, but we have reached the point where we have no other choice," Danon said.
"Just as there is an intelligence minister and a minister for strategic affairs, there should also be a designated minister to address the issue of infiltrators," he added, citing ministries that were only created in recent years.
After the Ministerial Committee on Legislation approved a bill, proposed by Likud MK Ofir Akunis (Likud), that would impose harsh sanctions against anyone who employs infiltrators, Kadima asked to delay the preliminary reading of the bill in the Knesset, which was initially scheduled for Wednesday.
Ever since it joined the coalition, Kadima has been undergoing an identity crisis. When Tzipi Livni headed the party, its platform pulled leftward. Now, with Shaul Mofaz at the helm, and as a part of the Likud-led coalition, the former Likud members (who defected from Likud back in 2005 to join Ariel Sharon's new party Kadima) are suddenly reminded of where they came from. Some Kadima members came out vehemently against Akunis's bill, claiming that it would hurt the infiltrators and relegate them to a life of idleness and crime. On the other hand, the issue is too volatile for anyone to take a stance in support of the infiltrators.
The accepted way of rejecting a bill is to appeal the decision of the Ministerial Committee on Legislation. However, the only member of Kadima who is a minister, as of now, is Mofaz. "Should Mofaz himself appeal the decision against the infiltrators? Are you crazy?" his camp insisted. "He will be hanged!" Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not wanting to embarrass Mofaz in front of his fellow party members, decided to delay the vote for a week.
But the confusion among Kadima members is only growing. When Livni said that Kadima would disappear one week after the next general election, even her supporters had to criticize her. On the other hand, they will follow her if she decides to establish a new party.
Livni is not the first Kadima leader to be deposed. She was preceded by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. When he found out that certain MKs were attempting to split the party, he rushed to meet with some of them and convinced them to keep the party intact. Livni, unlike Olmert, commits massacres against her own people (metaphorically speaking) and does everything in her power to bury the same people who were her subordinates just a few months ago.
Kadima believes that it will be judged, in the coalition and in general, according how the efforts to legislate the alternative to the Tal Law unfold (The Tal Law, which essentially exempts ultra-Orthodox Jews from mandatory military service, was declared unconstitutional by the High Court of Justice, which instructed the government to legislate an alternative by the end of July. One of Kadima's main objectives in joining the coalition was to formulate an alternative law that would see all the citizens of Israel contribute equally, be it in the form of military service or some form of national service). The Plesner Committee (the committee established to discuss the Tal Law alternative, headed by Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner) is supposed to submit its conclusions within two weeks, and then the legislation process, which is expected to take about a month, will begin. A general direction appears to have emerged, but no one knows how the sticking points, some of which are very significant, will be resolved.
In recent days, committee members have begun to feel that Kadima had become more belligerent. Mofaz instructed his representative, Plesner, to go for gold - to bring about an alternative law that would force ultra-Orthodox parties to quit the coalition – as if the continued presence of ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition would make any solution unacceptable to the general public. Furthermore, the removal of the ultra-Orthodox parties would serve to free up ministerial portfolios that would then be available for Kadima members.
Mofaz himself even attended one of the committee meetings and offered a multitude of aggressive remarks. Whereas until recently he spoke of legislating through consensus, it seems that the word agreement has vanished from his lexicon in his most recent speeches.
The Haredi leadership is already thinking ahead, to the upcoming publication of the committee's report, and is showing signs of consternation. This mood prompted Mofaz to cancel, at the last minute, a scheduled appearance at an event honoring ultra-Orthodox participants in national service programs. Mofaz's bodyguards were already at the venue. His office's new spokesman Adar Avishar had already sat down in the Jerusalem event hall. But his fear that 600 ultra-Orthodox Jews would embarrass him by heckling him while he spoke prompted Mofaz not to show up.
No one can say at this point whether or not the coalition will remain intact after Plesner's committee issues its conclusions. While Kadima is trying to push the ultra-Orthodox parties out of the coalition, the prime minister is coordinating efforts to keep them inside. Since the ultra-Orthodox parties are officially boycotting the Plesner committee, they secretly established a separate, circumventing committee this week in which the ultra-Orthodox parties are discussing the issue with coalition whip MK Zeev Elkin and representatives from the Prime Minister's Office.
In essence, starting this week, there are two parallel channels at work: an official committee, comprising many members, whose conclusions could potentially rock the coalition, and another, unofficial committee, small and underground, trying to preserve the coalition. Only in retrospect will we know which one was the real committee and which merely served as decoration.
Before the secret committee began meeting with representatives of the prime minister and the coalition, the ultra-Orthodox parties held a preliminary meeting with attorney Jacob Weinroth, a member of the Plesner committee. The meeting was held at the home of United Torah Judaism MK Israel Eichler's home. But news of the meeting leaked and pictures were even taken of the participants waiting for the elevator in the building's stairwell. The leak was discovered in the middle of the meeting, prompting Weinroth to slam his fists on the table in rage in front of the embarrassed MKs.
The main point of contention regarding the recruitment of ultra-Orthodox soldiers still remains: will there be a quota of Torah students, who will be allowed to remain in the yeshivas to study while their fellow students serve in the military, or will the military recruit the ultra-Orthodox public in a gradual manner, recruiting a larger number each year. According to Elkin's proposal, the ultra-Orthodox would have to meet a certain threshold of recruits each year or the law will be revoked immediately. The ultra-Orthodox representatives are demanding that the threshold will have to be met only every five years. Plesner opposes both proposals. He insists that the quotas need to be very clear.
One thing that almost everyone agrees on is that instead of rounding up draft dodgers and making mass arrests – something everyone agrees would not be feasible – draft dodgers will be subjected to financial sanctions.
Committee member Yedidia Stern suggested that the sanctions include a loss of municipal tax breaks and discounted kindergarten fees, loss of grants, rental assistance and guaranteed minimum income. The Finance Ministry supports Stern's proposal. Kolels (religious schools) that enroll draft dodgers would also suffer sanctions.
The committee decided to establish ultra-Orthodox schools that would incorporate Torah study with mandatory military service, like the Hesder yeshivas. In the Hesder arrangement, religious men are provided the opportunity of continuing their Torah studies while completing a shortened military service. The IDF representatives on the committee tried to take this opportunity to alter the existing Hesder law by extending the period of service, but the prime minister's representatives refused outright. That is the last thing they need – yet another battle with the religious and settler public.
Starting a war
The one person who was not afraid to fight on yet another front was the representative of the Justice Ministry, Deputy Attorney General Mike Blass. The deputy, who is about to retire, has been targeted by the Right as the man responsible for several recent settlement demolitions and as the person behind the efforts to stop the construction of 300 housing units that the prime minister promised the residents of Beit El. Now he is starting a war with the ultra-Orthodox as well. In a recommendation he presented to the Plesner committee, Blass concluded that the new service law would not have to include Arab citizens of Israel - only ultra-Orthodox citizens - and that every last one of the ultra-Orthodox citizens should be compelled to serve in the military or in national service.
The committee members were outraged. "Who asked you for your recommendation?" they asked. "This is a political committee that seeks to formulate a legislative alternative by mutual agreement," they said.
Sources in the committee reported that this was not the first time that senior officials, especially from the State Prosecution, tried to impose their views by way of a pseudo-professional recommendation. This was the case, they said, with Talia Sasson's report on the settlements and with the government's hesitant response to the High Court of Justice on the evacuation of the Beit El neighborhood of Ulpana and the Migron outpost.
Similar criticism was issued against senior State Prosecution officials regarding the issue of African infiltrators. According to one senior political official, when left-wing organizations petitioned the court against the deportation of South Sudanese migrants, and the state was asked to argue its stance as in every petition, the State Prosecution, together with Foreign Ministry bureaucrats, formulated a ridiculous, hesitant, and unconvincing argument that could have prompted the court to stop the deportation, which is what the prosecution wanted, apparently.
At the last minute, Netanyahu recognized the problem and decided to shelve the prosecution's argument and let the National Security Council, headed by Yaakov Amidror, to argue on behalf of the state. The outcome is well known – the court green lighted the deportation, as it will in future cases.