Analysis / The Government's More Important Decision

The cabinet's most important immigration decision yesterday dealt not with family unification, but with a bill proposed by Attorney General Menachem Mazuz under which illegal aliens would not be able to formalize their civil status in Israel until the end of a cooling-off period lasting anywhere from one to five years. The ministers decided that a memorandum on the bill should be circulated within three weeks. There is broad agreement in the coalition that the problem of illegal residents needs to be addressed, and therefore broad support is expected for a bill whose goal is the toughening of Israel's immigration policy.

The new bill deals not only with Palestinians, but with all illegal aliens, including foreign workers married to Israelis and relatives of new immigrants who reside illegally in Israel. None of these will be eligible for Israeli citizenship. The bill thus essentially denies Israeli citizens the possibility of raising a family with an illegal alien.

The government decided to present the Knesset with a proposed amendment to the temporary law on family unification. That amendment would allow Palestinian men over 35 and women over 25 to join their Israeli spouses. But if the proposal is not approved in all three readings by the end of the month, the government will seek to extend the temporary law, which bars all family reunifications for Palestinians. The extension can be approved with a single vote.

The National Security Council also presented its plan for toughening Israel's immigration policy at yesterday's discussion. But nothing is more manipulative than government statistics on demography. Tzipi Livni's proposal on family unification, which the government approved, will unfreeze an estimated 30 percent of reunification applications. Ofir Pines-Paz's proposal, which was not approved, would supposedly have unfrozen 46 percent of such requests. These estimates may or may not be accurate. But the difference between the two proposals is largely theoretical. The family reunification process can take five or more years. Without expert legal assistance, most applicants will be harassed and worn down by the overworked and underfunded bureaucracy.

So why is the decision important? Most applicants will not receive citizenship, or even health insurance, but they will be able to reside here legally, find employment and not be at the mercy of the immigration police. And that, too, is worth something.