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Former attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein was the man who prevented Avraham Poraz from implementing a liberal immigration policy. Rubinstein advised Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that a change in immigration policy required a cabinet decision. He was instrumental in the establishment of a ministerial committee to oversee the Population Administration, which undermined a large portion of the interior minister's authority over matters of immigration, and essentially blocked any progress on this front.

High Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein made use of a ruling on Wednesday to add his own voice to the public debate pertaining to a tightening of immigration policy. "The nation's character is that of a `nation of aliyah' - that is, a nation of return, rather than immigration," Rubinstein declared in his ruling. He explained that the term "immigration" is applicable to a nation "like all other nations," which "is not in keeping with the unique Israeli experience and the Zionist vision." He added that the name of the Minhal Ha-hagira (Immigration Administration) is also not to his liking.

Rubinstein also declared that he did not deny the validity of the Population Administration protocol stating that common-law partners of Israeli citizens, who legally reside here, must go abroad in order to legitimize their status. To date, five District Court judges have expressed an opinion on this matter, and they are divided three to two against the protocol. Rubinstein is a High Court justice, and his opinion is therefore binding. But he and other High Court justices stressed last week that their ruling did not define the legality of the protocol. The High Court will be called upon to make a definitive decision in this matter soon, in the context of another case.

When will the children be deported?

For a long time to come, the Population Administration will continue to be taken to task for its claim that there are 90,000 children in Israel with no legal status. Their numbers have been considerably reduced since that figure was made public. Population Administration director Sassi Katzir says there are potentially 1,500-2,500 children of immigrants who could be granted permanent residence in accordance with the cabinet decision. Human rights organizations say there are 300 children under this heading.

"There are huge gaps in the numbers, and they make me angry, too," said Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz. "By the end of the year, we will know who was right." Why by the end of the year? Because that is the final date by which children who fit the criteria outlined in the plan must submit a request to be granted permanent status. If by the end of the year it becomes clear that only a few children fit the exacting criteria of the plan, as claimed by human rights organizations, the criteria may become more lenient. For example, the stipulation that children must have been born in Israel to be granted permanent residence may be dropped.

The question is whether the children who do not meet current criteria will be deported before that date. Pines-Paz promised human rights organization representatives that the children and their families will not be deported in the next three months - that is, until the end of September. He is considering extending the deportation freeze until the end of the implementation of the status-altering plan at the end of the year. Meanwhile, he is not willing to use any term stronger than "considering" - not even "positively considering."

A matter of principle

A senior Interior Ministry official said the difference between former Population Administration director Herzl Gedge and current director Katzir is that Gedge considered preventing the entry of non-Jews to be a matter of principle. Katzir simply cannot overcome his past role of supervising military checkpoints.

Indeed, Katzir opened our conversation by telling a story of his military service. "When I was in the Israel Defense Forces, my officers had a very difficult time with Palestinian demonstrations because mothers stood on the front lines. I told them not to engage in any nonsense - they must try to think of these mothers as their own. That gimmick worked."

With all due respect for the differences in these situations, Katzir said, this is also the policy of the Population Administration. "Our people understand that, behind every case, there is a human being."

Several days after that conversation, Pines-Paz came to a meeting with Haaretz staff. He saw things otherwise. "The Population Administration is an arbitrary organization instead of a service organization," said Pines-Paz. "I understood that during my first week in office. I uncovered the internal Comptroller's Report regarding the Population Administration, which was classified. The report was complete before I took office, but it never occurred to them to publish it or work according to its conclusions."

According to Pines-Paz, the report "reveals atrocious findings - mainly that in every population administration office, people get different solutions to the same problems. ... It's unbelievable. It's a system that works like it's still the `60s without taking everything that happened in the `90s into consideration - the wave of immigration, the peace process and the foreign workers."

`This is just an update'

Katzir outlined target goals in the conversation. One of them was that the administration's new protocol would appear on the Internet by the end of June. Until today, Population Administration protocol was characteristically cloaked in secrecy, concealed from the public that it is meant to serve, and subject to quixotic change. But Katzir put a damper on the excitement. "This is not new protocol," he said. "It is an update of existing protocol. ... There are people who expect a revolution, but this is actually just an update, which you might call a moderate update."

Daniel Solomon, the Population Administration's legal adviser, noted that Pines-Paz's committee to examine immigration policy would also attempt to identify parts of the protocol that should be proposed as primary legislation in the Knesset, or secondary legislation in the form of regulations.

The second target goal is the proposed opening of the new Population Administration branch office in East Jerusalem next year. Katzir said a very large sum was invested in the new office with an eye toward making the building as accessible as possible. Pines-Paz said the building was supposed to be complete in October-November, but it was delayed by a judicial procedure that will end in January-February 2006. If that is the case, the tortuous line in front of the Population Administration office in East Jerusalem may disappear by the end of the winter.

Katzir had far less good news to report regarding appointments with the staff of the visa department. It is not unusual for those who seek a visa to wait in line for a number of months for their first appointment. Meanwhile, they remain without any status or with a minimal status that does not entitle them to health insurance. In most branches, Katzir said, he has successfully reduced the waiting time for an appointment to a month to six weeks by mobilizing personnel to the visa department. This may be an improvement, but it is meager consolation. According to Katzir, a more significant improvement requires a considerable addition of manpower. Katzir explained that every appointment with the visa department is preceded by a great deal of preparatory work to ascertain that the request is based on valid information.

Solomon noted that there are currently more than 3,000 legal actions pending against the Population Administration. One way to explain this amazing figure is that, in many cases, the court is the only place in which people can attain the status that they deserve in the eyes of the law. Of course, Solomon presented another possible explanation. According to him, an individual on the brink of deportation has little to lose by filing an appeal.