Analysis |

This Israeli Minister Created a Useless Ukraine Refugee Fiasco for Israel

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked's hardline demands on refugee absorption from Ukraine were technically illegal – not to mention immoral

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked at Ben-Gurion Airport on Sunday.
Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked at Ben-Gurion Airport on Sunday.Credit: Moti Milrod
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

With outrageous belatedness, following the embarrassing pictures from Ben-Gurion Airport that sparked a public outcry, and after having discovered that she is isolated in the cabinet, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked was dragged into the realm of humane behavior, kicking and screaming.

Her position was extremely unreasonable from the get-go, not only because of her stingy quota for refugees, but also because of her trick of including 18,000 Ukrainians already living in Israel in the total, as if it were possible to fly them back to Kyiv right now. This contortionist maneuver quickly backfired. Nobody bought it, and it made the interior minister look devious.

Shaked justified her hard line, which has given Israel a bad name overseas, citing the need to preserve Israel’s Jewish identity. The purpose of this “Jewish identity,” in the view of the Yamina party minister and her soulmates in the Religious Zionism party, is to make kosher all that is despicable.

The same goes for the right’s hysterical shouting about the “state of all its citizens” that would arise here if we took in tens of thousands of Ukrainian women and children. It’s interesting that this argument is being raised by the same annexationists who long to absorb three million Palestinians.

Ukrainian refugees at Ben-Gurion Airport last week.

If anyone in Shaked’s office had bothered to do a bit of homework, she would have discovered that back in 2010 Israel signed an agreement with Ukraine under which Ukrainians with relatives in Israel do not need visas to visit. They are allowed to enter freely. Or at least, that’s the case in normal times.

So during wartime, when these miserable people are fleeing for their lives and arriving empty-handed, we should make it harder to enter? While violating a signed agreement? There’s no limit to the stupidity and charlatanism.

Shaked managed to crawl out of the hole she dug for herself after receiving assistance from the Justice Ministry – which is frequently smeared by the right. Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon made it clear to her that in order to violate existing procedures, a decision must be made by either the cabinet or the Knesset. Shaked was more than happy to use this lifeline.

Had she dared to bring her original proposal before the cabinet, it’s unlikely that any of her colleagues would have supported her. Even Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, her longtime political partner, wouldn’t have voted for it. And the other ministers? On Sunday, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that as long as the cannons are roaring, the refugees should be allowed in. So did the ministers from Labor, Meretz, New Hope and, of course, Yesh Atid.

On Sunday, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid toured border crossings leading out of Ukraine. Between landings and takeoffs, he was in contact with Shaked, mainly by text – pressing and demanding and urging and dragging her in the right direction. If the policy that Shaked had announced in the middle of last week hadn’t been changed, the Foreign Ministry’s consuls would have had to start more or less this Monday to screen refugees at check-in counters on flights to Israel. And needless to say, Lapid didn’t raise the issue on his own.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in Romania on Sunday.Credit: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

He chose the path of quiet discourse with Shaked. The attacks on her from the left, he had concluded, were only putting her on the defensive. Bennett also kept a safe distance from Shaked, his political partner (for the time being). He saw in time that she was painting herself into a corner. “We won’t permit refugees to enter without limitation,” Shaked said Sunday at Ben-Gurion airport.

No one was suggesting that. Based on all of the reliable assessments, most of the refugees who would be coming here through the revised plan have no intention of settling in Israel. Most of them will be returning home or going elsewhere in Europe, where many countries are offering much more generous conditions. Israel can’t compete with Germany or Sweden and their like. But it’s worth learning something from them about compassion and humanity and about rising above national considerations. And sometimes common sense also doesn’t hurt.

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