Belatedly, which is better than never, President Shimon Peres on Thursday came out firmly against the cabinet's decision to deport about 400 locally born children of foreign workers from Israel. Peres, a master at turning a phrase who is endowed with a unique ability to illuminate different and contradictory sides of many issues, left no doubt about his unequivocal position: that it is inconceivable to deport children who feel part of the Israeli fabric and speak Israel's language.
His remarks drew criticism from people who wondered how the president could take the liberty of speaking out against a government decision, however shaky its basis. They based themselves on the fact that constitutionally, the president's job is essentially ceremonial, and is supposed to transcend the disagreements dividing the public.
But these critics ignore the unique role played by the president - who by virtue of the Basic Law on the Presidency is head of state - at moments when a cabinet decision has lost its moral bearings. They also ignore Peres' special status, which not every president has enjoyed, and his experience. He was not chosen to serve merely as a symbol, someone who could stick his nose no place but into his handkerchief, as the first president, Chaim Weizmann, complained.
In the early 1980s it was the fifth president, Yitzhak Navon, whose public statements led the cabinet to establish a state commission of inquiry into the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. The cabinet decided to establish this commission, whose members were appointed by the Supreme Court president, even though initially, it had sought an in-house investigation, devoid of either expertise or public credibility.
Considering some of the egregious errors the government has committed recently - such as refusing to establish a commission of inquiry into the events described in the Goldstone Report on last year's war in Gaza, or the farce that preceded the establishment of the Turkel Committee investigating May's raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla - one could argue that Peres has stood aside in many cases, accepting the limits of his role and making do with offering advice behind the scenes. Unfortunately, his voice has not even been raised loudly against politicians' attacks on the Supreme Court, despite the fact that there should be no public dispute about the obligation to obey judicial rulings, regardless of their content.
The issue of the foreign workers and the desire many of them have to remain in Israel is complex, and stems in part from the hefty sums they paid for the right to work here. The government contributed to the growing number of labor migrants by failing to properly supervise the borders, surrendering to pressure groups and not having a clear and consistent immigration policy. The tip of this iceberg was revealed in former minister Shlomo Benizri's conviction for taking bribes.
The foreign workers' children only highlight the extent of the problem, which was the subject of a comprehensive doctoral thesis by Dr. Yoram Ida of Tel Aviv University. Ida's study emphasized the need to shape an immigration policy that would mediate among the various interests. Prof. Eran Yashiv, an economist from Tel Aviv University's public policy department, asserts that children should not pay the price of successive Israeli governments' surrender to the pressures of manpower companies and employers.
The president's remarks ought to fall on receptive ears and lead to cancelation of the decision to deport these 400 children and their parents, a move whose damage to Israel would greatly outweigh its benefits. The cabinet decision set arbitrary and vague criteria for deportation. By creating an artificial separation barrier between children who have lived in Israel for at least five years and those who have spent less time here, but were born here and speak the local language, the decision makes a mockery of the human dignity of these children and their parents. It's a pity the High Court of Justice will likely have to issue a ruling to that effect if the cabinet refuses to reconsider the matter and change its decision.
Canceling the decision would reflect the gravity of the issue and would, finally, lead to the development of an immigration policy for Israel, such as other countries have. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Eli Yishai must lead such a process, which should have occurred long since.
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