All in Favor / Amnesty Young Guard Forms Lobby

Amnesty International's youth members certainly know how to take advantage of the strike at secondary schools. They came to the Knesset yesterday morning going from one MK to another, trying to persuade them to vote for two bills promoting refugee rights. One bill is sponsored by Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor), chair of the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, and Dov Khenin (Hadash); the other by Ran Cohen (Meretz-Yahad), chair of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers.

These are the same teenagers who persuaded 62 MKs to sign a petition several months ago in favor of letting 1,200 Sudanese refugees stay in Israel (by now there are 4,000 refugees and not just from Sudan). Yesterday they learned at the Knesset that there are some things more powerful than an MK's signature - for example, coalition discipline.

But the Amnesty youth members were not alone. The Knesset was also visited by Sigal Rosen, founder of Moked - Hotline for Migrant Workers, and Elisheva Milikovsky of Be'er Sheva, made famous as the student the army calls before it dumps the refugees. Rosen really disliked the proposed legislation, and thought it imposes very harsh restrictions on the refugees. But she hoped that the very fact that she is so displeased means that right-wing MKs will be able to live with it in peace.

Pines-Paz explained in a letter to Knesset members that "the government of Israel currently does not have a policy on refugees, and Israeli legislation does not contain definitions regarding who is a refugee, and what are his rights and obligations." In practice, there is nothing special about this situation. Israel's migrant policy is based on general and outdated legislation that gives bureaucrats almost unlimited freedom of action - in other words, the freedom to say no.

At a meeting of the Ministerial Committee for Legislative Affairs on Sunday, the Prime Minister's Bureau representative opposed the bill. Yesterday, the coalition administration instructed its members to vote against it.

There are cases when it is possible to steal a vote from the coalition. It happened, for instance, with social bills or extreme rightist bills against Arab MKs. By contrast, the chance of a bill granting rights to non-Jews being approved contrary to the coalition's stance is almost nonexistent. The coalition is joined in such cases by the factions on the right.

Pines-Paz stood at the podium in the plenum and read out the names of the petition's 62 signatories, in hopes of embarrassing them. Limor Livnat of the Likud thought this was unfair. She, like several other MKs, signed with the reservation that the state serve only as a transit station for refugees. Pines-Paz claimed the petition cannot be implemented without the proposed law.

Shalom Simhon (Labor) responded on behalf of the government. Simhon tried to salvage the bill for Pines-Paz by suggesting that the vote be postponed. But the minister who serves as liaison between the government and the coalition, Ruhama Avraham (Kadima), made it clear she would not tolerate such games. As far as she was concerned, if Pines-Paz presented the bill counter to the government's position, Pines-Paz is going down. And thus the bill fell, by a majority of 28 against 12. The Amnesty kids got a valuable lesson on what really counts in politics.

Amnesty Youth member Neria Reiner drew the following conclusions: Their lobbying effort this time had been too brief. Ahead of the next vote, she intends to visit the Knesset twice a week.