Analysis / No Need to Rush on Immigration Policy

An ironclad law of Israeli government states that a cabinet that can formulate a policy months from now will not do so today. The Citizenship Law approved by the High Court of Justice yesterday will expire in another two months. But the court ruling gives the cabinet more time. Therefore, if drafting an immigration policy was previously one of the most pressing matters on the cabinet's agenda, now there is time.

How much time? Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, who thought the law should be abolished, ruled that the state should be allowed eight months to draft a new policy. Justice Edmond Levy, whose vote was pivotal in approving the law, allotted the Knesset nine months to formulate an improved law. In other words, the government has less than nine months.

In two months, the Knesset will probably extend the Citizenship Law for at least six months. That does not, of course, mean that Israel will have an immigration policy in early 2007. It is entirely possible that in the interim, nobody will do anything, or the cabinet will fail to agree on policy and the law will be extended again.

Justice Minister Haim Ramon declared that immigration ought to governed by a Basic Law. Why a Basic Law? It is hard not to see this as an assertion by Ramon that immigration policy should be determined by the Knesset, without High Court interference.

However, the chances of the Knesset passing a Basic Law on immigration are slim. It was Ramon's good friend, Aryeh Deri, who proclaimed that Shas would not permit the Ten Commandments to be passed as a Basic Law. Deri is not around anymore, but it is doubtful that Shas's suspicion of Basic Laws has decreased. Besides, it does not make much sense to legislate immigration policy as a Basic Law without putting the Law of Return into it. And, as we know, nobody dares touch the Law of Return.

Ramon talks about settling the matter without discriminating against this or that sector, in the spirit of Holland and Belgium. Holland is considered an enlightened Western country, but its immigration policy is among the toughest in Europe. When Ramon uses it as an example, he is actually saying that the intention is to close the gate in an egalitarian manner - not only to Palestinians, but to everyone. The likely basis will be the recommendations of the Rubinstein Committee, which proposed stiffening the policy on spousal immigration from anywhere in the world and severely restricting it from hostile areas, such as the Palestinian Authority.

Yesterday's ruling thus has great constitutional importance, but its practical significance is limited. It is doubtful that there are many issues that elicit such broad consensus in the political system as that of closing the gates to family unification. The question of whether this is done through a discriminatory law like the Citizenship Law or a more general law, as Ramon suggests, is less important, practically speaking. The principle is the same: The gates will close.