JERUSALEM (Jun. 19)
The Cabinet decided Sunday that hereafter Israeli visas will be issued only to those Soviet Jews committed to immigrate to Israel.
Other Jews seeking to leave the Soviet Union will have to apply for visas to the country of their choice.
The decision, aimed at eliminating the so called “dropout” phenomenon, was carried by a vote of 16-2 with three abstentions. But four of the ministers who backed it made clear they voted with reluctance and misgivings.
The move was hailed by Yuli Kosharovsky, a longtime refusenik and aliyah activist in Moscow. But it was denounced by several prominent ex-refuseniks living in Israel.
The decision was enthusiastically welcomed by Simcha Dinitz, chairman of the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency Executive, and by Mendel Kaplan, chairman of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors.
Both expressed the view that Israel should not assist Jews to go from one Diaspora to another.
But the Israeli leadership is braced for strong criticism from Jewish organizations abroad active on behalf of Soviet Jewry, especially the United States.
The Cabinet did not say what methods would be used to ensure that holders of Israeli visas go to Israel. The implication was that Soviet Jews with Israeli visas would have to fly directly to Tel Aviv via Bucharest, Romania.
WOULD BYPASS VIENNA
They would bypass Vienna, the transit point for Soviet Jewish emigrants for nearly 20 years and the place where the majority of those carrying Israeli visas have opted to settle in countries other than Israel. Most have gone to the United States.
The “dropouts” have embarrassed and angered Israeli and Zionist officials. Israel got nowhere trying to persuade Washington to withdraw the refugee status it grants Jews leaving the USSR, nor would international Jewish relief and resettlement agencies agree to cease aiding them.
The Cabinet vote followed a forceful presentation of the case for restricted visas by Absorption Minister Yaacov Tsur. He spoke of the anti-Israel propaganda Jews were exposed to in the USSR, which he said robbed them of free choice.
If they came to Israel first, they would have a chance to get to know the country and decide, on the basis of hard facts, whether they want to live here, Tsur said. If not, he indicated, they would be free to leave.
But Tsur failed to mention what some Soviet Jewry activists immediately pointed out: The emigres lose their refugee status as soon as they arrive in Israel. They would encounter difficulties and delays gaining admittance to the United States later on.
90 PERCENT DROPOUT RATE
Tsur was firmly supported by both Premier Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. “We have nothing more to lose,” Peres argued, noting that the “dropout” rate has reached 90 percent in recent months.
Shamir said Israel in effect would be endorsing the dropouts if it allowed every Jewish emigrant from the Soviet Union to “exploit” an Israeli visa.
But some ministers thought the Cabinet should have debated the issue longer and in greater depth. Some regretted that the various activist groups were not asked to testify.
Housing Minister David Levy of Likud, one of the three who abstained, warned that the decision would risk reducing the number of Soviet Jews seeking to leave.
But longtime refusenik Kosharovsky told Israel Radio in a telephone interview from Moscow that the decision would increase aliyah to Israel and overall Jewish emigration in the long run. He claimed there are 100,000 Jews in the Soviet Union who want to go only to Israel.
Tsur argued that limiting visas only to Jews definitely going to Israel would not impose an obstacle for others. He noted that new Soviet regulations enable relatives living in any country to apply on behalf of would-be emigrants for family reunification.
He said some 6,000 Soviet citizens, most of them Jews, have already applied for exit permits under the new rules.
NEW SOVIET RULES CITED
Critics pointed out, however, that the new rules empower the Soviet authorities to deny family reunification where the applicant is not a first-degree relative (that is, a member of the immediate family), which is most often the case.
Besides Levy, abstentions were recorded by Minister-Without-Portfolio Moshe Arens of the Likud and Economic Coordination Minister Gad Yaacobi of the Labor Party.
Negative votes were cast by Laborite Ezer Weizman and Yitzhak Peretz of the religious party Shas. Both are ministers without portfolio.
Among the supporters, strong reservations were registered by Commerce and Industry Minister Ariel Sharon (Likud), Police Minister Haim Barlev (Labor), Education Minister Yitzhak Navon (Labor) and Yosef Shapira (National Religious Party), who holds no portfolio.
Shapira recalled that former Premier Menachem Begin had opposed coerced direct flights to Israel as a matter of principle.
Tsur denied after the Cabinet meeting that there was coercion.
Jews with relatives in the United States can go there on American visas, and whoever wants to leave Israel after he gets here can do so,” he said.
He added that more than 90 percent of the emigres who came here from Russia have stayed and were well-integrated into Israeli society.
‘FROM ONE GALUT TO ANOTHER’
At a news conference later, WZO Chairman Dinitz observed that “the visa to Israel for Soviet Jews should not be a transit visa from one Galut to another.”
Kaplan said much the same. “As a Zionist body concerned with building the State of Israel, we should use the funds raised by the Jewish people for bringing olim to Israel. I am totally opposed to using Jewish funds to take people to another Diaspora and helping them get settled there.”
Kaplan added, “Freedom of choice should be exercised by Russian Jews before they get a visa to Israel. Once they make the choice to go to the United States, they should not be supported by Jewish funds.”
But the Soviet Jewry Information Center in Jerusalem, headed by former Prisoner of Zion Yosef Mendelevich, called the Cabinet decision “absurd” and blasted the government for failing to provide adequate housing and jobs for those Soviet Jews who choose to come to Israel.
Another famous former refusenik, Natan Sharansky, has spoken out repeatedly against forced direct flights for emigrants.