JERUSALEM (Jan. 7)
Israel’s political establishment, spearheaded by President Chaim Herzog, whose office is non-political, appealed today for an end to the mounting flood of recrimination over who was responsible for the publicity fiasco which brought an abrupt halt to the airlift rescue of Ethiopian Jews.
Herzog, in an Israel Radio interview, “begged” the various factions “not to turn a glorious operation — the saving of Ethiopian Jews — into a matter of party-politics infighting.” He was referring in part to the attempt by some young Herut activists in the Knesset to place the blame on the Labor Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, who heads the Labor-Likud unity government.
The Prime Minister’s Office has come under attack from both left and rightwing elements for holding a press conference last Thursday at which it was confirmed that as many as 10,000 Ethiopian Jews had been airlifted to Israel, via Sudan, since last November. The immediate result was suspension of the airlift, leaving an unknown number of Jews still in Ethiopia or stranded in refugee camps in the Sudan.
A PLEDGE BY PERES
Peres pledged today that he would “not rest” until the remainder of the Ethiopian Jewish community was brought to Israel. He will make a statement in the Knesset tomorrow but there will be no debate.
The airlift, though known to the media for some time, was subject to military censorship until last Wednesday when Yehuda Dominitz, director of the Jewish Agency’s aliya department, was quoted by the Gush Emunim magazine Nekuda as saying the vast majority of Ethiopian Jews was already in Israel. Dominitz’s disclosure, to an obscure, small circulation journal, infuriated the rest of the media, forcing the authorities to lift the censorship. The Israeli press and overseas media were filled immediately with sensational accounts of the arrival of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. There was a considerable emphasis on their poor physical condition and the rare-to-Israel tropical diseases from which many suffered.
Sources close to Peres insisted the press conference was the only way to shift attention from the politically charged subject of the airlift from Sudan to the great efforts being made to integrate and absorb the newcomers from Ethiopia in Israel.
ACCUSATIONS AND COUNTER-ACCUSATIONS
But Haim Aharon, chairman of the Jewish Agency’s aliya department, whose first act was to suspend Dominitz for his “leak,” attacked the Prime Minister’s Office for holding the press conference. Aharon was blasted today by Labor Minister Yaacov Tsur (Labor) who noted that the press conference was conducted jointly by the Jewish Agency and the government.
Many of the questions from reporters were answered by Akiva Levinsky, Jewish Agency treasurer and acting chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive in the absence of Leon Dulzin who is abroad. Tsur contended that the Agency people had been “among the greatest leakers” of the Ethiopian affair.
Dulzin himself hinted broadly that a rescue operation was underway when he addressed the World Zionist Organization-American Section in New York last November. But Dulzin never mentioned the airlift.
In the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee today, Likud Herut MK Dan Meridor, blasted the Prime Minister’s Office for its handling of the affair. For seven years rescue efforts have been going ahead in secret, he said, but now, under a Labor Premier there was “a new culture of government–someone is looking to boost someone’s image at any cost.”
The organized rescue of Ethiopian Jews did indeed begin shortly after former Premier Menachem Begin and his Likud-led government took office in 1977. But the airlift it inaugurated was forced to end after two flights when Begin’s Defense Minister, the late Moshe Dayan, made the politically dangerous disclosure that Israel was selling arms to the Marxist regime in Ethiopia with which it has never had diplomatic relations.
SEEKING TO CALM THE WATERS
Deputy Premier Yitzhak Shamir, leader of Likud, sought to calm the waters today when he told the Knesset committee to dismiss any notion that a deliberate attempt had been made to sabotage the rescue operation — as implied by some local Ethiopian activists. But Shamir, and Herzog as well, agreed that the press conference had been a mistake.
The efforts to reduce tension resulted in a rare instance of cooperation between the far rightwing Tehiya Party and the leftist Citizens Rights Movement, both opposition factions. Each agreed today to with draw its motion of non-confidence in the government which had been placed on the Knesset agenda.
Meanwhile, Dulzin said in an interview from Britain today that there was hope the rescue efforts could, somehow, be resumed. The same hope was expressed by other Israeli officials. But most agreed that the immediate need is to end the public mud-slinging.