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One of the first issues that the new government will have to deal with, in conjunction with approving the state budget, is the drafting of a new immigration policy.

On April 1, three days after the vote, the emergency regulation governing the issue of family unification of Israelis married to Palestinians becomes invalid. The Basic Law on the Knesset, however, stipulates that any law that expires in the pre-election period is automatically extended for three months from the convention of the Knesset.

In Europe, immigration issues can determine an election. And in Israel too, ostensibly, immigration policy is high on the public agenda. The subject is particularly relevant now. It is almost a given that immigration rules will be tightened considerably this year. Nevertheless, immigration is simply not on the election agenda.

One possible reason for this is the consensus within Israeli society on the need to close the borders to non-Jews. Another is that it is an issue that is of no interest to anyone with the right to vote, and that the parties have no interest in those who cannot vote.

No reaction to report

The Rubinstein Committee that was set up to review immigration policy submitted an interim report last month that proposed severely restricting non-Jewish immigration to Israel. And how did the cabinet respond?

"It's pretty amazing, but there was no reaction," committee chairman Prof. Amnon Rubinstein commented.

One part of the recommendations deals with family unification from security-risk regions, or, in other words, immigration from Arab states and the Palestinian Authority. This part is intended to replace the emergency regulation and stipulates that the government can completely prohibit immigration from combat zones (such as the Gaza Strip). Anyone from a hostile area (such as Jordan) wishing to immigrate must prove loyalty to the state.

Additional recommendations deal with family-unification immigration from the rest of the world and include imposing restrictions based on age and income, and perhaps setting quotas as well.

But the government is likely to seek more restrictions. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who will be a central figure in the next government too, called the recommendations on immigration from combat and hostile areas "necessary but insufficient."

Livni seeks a law that would enshrine the principle that "maintaining a national home for the Jewish people is an interest worth defending," by giving the state the right to use immigration policy to preserve the Jewish majority.

"The moment this basic principle is grounded in law, the gate [of the state] in any event will be quite restricted, irrespective of whether you come from a hostile country or not," Livni said.

Livni would prefer to pass a new law rather than to further extend the emergency regulation, but she admits that time is short.

There appear to be few real differences between Likud and Kadima on immigration.

"As long as the [security-related] circumstances that led to the emergency regulation prevail, the Likud will support its extension," Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman MK Michael Eitan said.

The extension of the emergency regulation is not a done deal. The High Court of Justice is due to issue a ruling on its legality by May 16.

What does Labor say? Former interior minister Ophir Pines-Paz, who appointed the Rubinstein Committee, terms the recommendations "interesting and worthy of serious consideration." This is partly because he views the emergency regulation they are intended to replace as "perhaps the strictest immigration law in the world."

Cooling-off period

One of the main forces in favor of tightening immigration rules is Attorney General Menachem Mazuz. Mazuz headed up the team that drafted a bill calling for a long cooling-off period before anyone staying in the country illegally could obtain legal status in Israel. This would apply not only to Palestinians but also to foreign workers, the elderly parents of new immigrants and immigrants' children from previous marriages. The law was scheduled for a first reading in the Knesset during the last term, but never got there.