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President Shimon Peres voiced criticism yesterday of a government decision to expel 400 children born in Israel to illegal immigrants.

"It is unthinkable to expel 400 children born in Israel, who feel Israeli and who live like Israelis," Peres said yesterday at Kfar Maccabiah.

"Such a move will damage the country and harm a great many families in Israel," the president added.

While Peres expressed support for a comprehensive immigration policy, he rejected "interim arrangements" - such as the expulsion of the 400 children of immigrant workers.

The president's comments boosted those of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who said Wednesday that he intends to initiate another round of cabinet discussions on the matter in this Sunday's weekly meeting.

The Labor chairman had not attended the cabinet meeting during which the subject was discussed because he was in Washington, but he also neglected to leave behind any guidelines on how he planned to vote on the issue.

In response to Barak's statement, the Prime Minister's Bureau said there was no plan to bring the issue up for discussion at the next cabinet meeting.

Barak said Wednesday that the decision to grant permanent resident status to some 800 migrant workers was the right thing to do, but the decision to stop there and expel 400 children was arbitrary.

"The scenes involving police officers raiding the homes of foreign workers and forcefully removing children, of prison guards holding families in jails, and of inspectors leading Hebrew-speaking children and putting them up on airplanes - these will all cause us irreparable damage," Barak said.

As with Peres, the defense minister called for a comprehensive, clear immigration policy, but said it should be applied henceforth and not retroactively on the children already living in Israel.

"The demographic balance of the State of Israel will not change if residence status is granted to the children of migrant workers now living in Israel, as well as to their parents, who first entered Israel with a legal visa," Barak said.

"The arrest and expulsion of hundreds of Hebrew-speaking children - many of whose parents were invited by state authorities to serve as caretakers for Israel's elderly, for its sons and daughters, and to work its fields - will strike a fatal blow to the image of Israel around the world," he added.

"The government must adopt the recommendations of the inter-ministerial committee on granting permanent status in a way that will include all the children in Israel, and not just some of them," he continued. "The remaining recommendations should be applied moving forward, in order to ensure that Israel will indeed preserve its right to decide who will pass through its gates and who will stay here. In the history of the state the authorities never arrested and never expelled forcefully Hebrew-speaking children only because their parents were not in its territory legally."

Yishai weighs in

Countering Barak's statements, Interior Minister Eli Yishai said, "It is unfortunate that there are those trying to take advantage of children of foreigners for the sake of [popularity]. This was a government decision that followed serious debate and comprehensive work by an inter-ministerial committee, therefore it is not right to invalidate the work of the government. It is strange that a person who at first consciously ignored the issue of the foreigners is now behaving as if this was the first he'd heard of them."

PR nightmare

Meanwhile, media consultant Ran Rahav announced yesterday that he sent every government minister a letter detailing the PR implications of a decision to expel the children.

Rahav told the ministers that, as a public relations expert, he felt obligated to draw their attention to the "serious damage Israel's image would suffer from a single piece of footage on CNN, ABC or any other media outlet in the world."

He pointed out the terrible media exposure Israel faced as a result of its handling in late May of the Gaza-bound flotilla.

"We suffered and continue to suffer from hostile international media exposure, and this is an understatement," Rahav wrote. "We must prevent such a terrible image [of the childrens' expulsion] from being published around the world. We must stop the next media disaster."