The government decision on Sunday to grant permanent-resident status to the children of migrant workers who chose to settle in Israel stirred debate and disagreement because of the planned expulsion of around 400 children and their families who did not meet the criteria. The decision's significance transcends the suffering in store for these children, who must not be expelled. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that "we have adopted a new immigration policy," which he says balances the "humanitarian problem" and "Zionist considerations." But the current decision repeats the familiar behavior of determining policy bit by bit in response to crises and the pressure of the moment.
Like other developed countries, Israel attracts immigrants who want to improve their quality of life; some decide to settle here, build families and adopt a new cultural and national identity for themselves and their families. Israel has not prepared for such a reality. The immigration and citizenship laws were designed to encourage the immigration of Jews and their families, and, under restrictions that have become even more severe in recent years, to limit immigration by Arabs through marriage. This approach does not reflect the reality in which thousands of foreigners from the developing world live in Israel and thousands more are knocking on its doors.
Sunday's decision follows in the footsteps of the United States and West European countries that have instituted a policy of amnesty for illegal immigrants who have stayed in their territory for long periods. The decision is precedent-setting, but it is not enough.
First, expanding it to apply to adults who have lived in Israel for many years and for whom Israel has become the center of their lives should be considered. Second, the government must develop an immigration policy that is suitable for the 21st century. It must ask what is necessary for the economy. Maybe it's worthwhile to bring quality human capital to Israel that will boost export industries. Maybe it's correct to set up a process for naturalization as in developed countries. The policy must also take into account the high unemployment among the Palestinians and a future in which they will be able to return to work in the Israeli economy.
There is no dilemma between being humane and Zionism, as Netanyahu would have us believe. The absorption of new Israelis who have opted to live here will bolster both goals. It will contribute to the immigrants' personal development, strengthen the Zionist enterprise and reflect Israel's maturity and its joining the group of developed countries.
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