JERUSALEM (Feb. 28)
Israeli authorities are stunned by a new prediction that as many as 230,000 Soviet Jews will immigrate to Israel this year alone.
Previous estimates had been in the neighborhood of 100,000.
The latest forecast was reported Tuesday to the interministerial committee on immigration and promptly leaked to the news media.
Israel Television described the source of the information as “a high government official working in absorption, whose previous projections have all been correct in the past.”
Such an influx would have a severe impact on Israel’s absorption capacity. Uri Gordon, chairman of the Jewish Agency’s Immigration and Absorption Department, said that while the housing problem could be overcome, finding jobs for the new arrivals would be a major challenge.
The Israel Defense Force also will have to accelerate its preparations to absorb large numbers of new recruits, in face of a reduced military budget.
According to plans authorized last week by the IDF chief of staff, Gen. Dan Shomron, mass conscription was not expected to begin until 1991, the IDF magazine Bemahane reported Wednesday.
The interministerial committee, chaired by Deputy Finance Minister Yossi Beilin, met Tuesday to discuss absorption plans based on a maximum of 100,000 olim.
The session broke up in disarray when more than double that figure was seriously projected.
4,815 ARRIVALS IN JANUARY
The immediate reaction of one high-ranking Jewish Agency official was that the new estimate could “strengthen the Arab states’ pressure on the Soviet Union to curtail immigration.”
The official observed, however, that “there is no way of knowing how realistic it is.”
Simcha Dinitz, chairman of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization Executives, said guessing games are not helpful. “Efforts should be made to find alternative ways for the Soviet Jews to leave the USSR,” he said.
The Soviet authorities so far have refused to approve direct flights between Moscow and Tel Aviv. As a result, many emigrants have to wait a year or longer for flights by existing air services.
Nevertheless, a huge number seem to be getting out. Of the 6,170 immigrants who arrived in Israel in January, 4,815 were from the Soviet Union, according to figures released Wednesday by the Absorption Ministry.
Government sources said the high estimate of arrivals this year is conditional on finding new exit routes for Soviet Jews. The sources suggested Prague, Warsaw and even Helsinki as transit points.
Another solution would be to establish an ocean passenger service to Israel from the Soviet Black Sea port of Odessa.
The Soviets have been willing to transport the emigrants’ heavy baggage and household effects by container ship to Israel, but have repeatedly refused to establish an ocean liner service for passengers.
Israeli officials seem to be as concerned by the leak of the high estimate as by the problems that could arise if it materializes. Gordon told reporters Tuesday that the government official who made the prediction should not have publicized the figure.
“It will only cause problems,” mainly concern over finding jobs for so many newcomers, he said. Unemployment in Israel is currently at a record 9 percent.
MOST SETTLING IN TEL AVIV AREA
“We can overcome the housing problem by temporarily placing immigrants in hotels, hostels and youth centers,” Gordon said.
But Efraim Cohen, deputy director general of the Absorption Ministry, said the new projection would require an increase in the absorption budget from the present $1.5 billion to at least $3.5 billion. He said home-building would have to be accelerated using prefabricated houses erected in brand new neighborhoods.
“We will have to stop talking and start acting,” Cohen said.
Of the 6,170 immigrants who arrived in January, 4,836 bypassed absorption centers, opting instead for “direct absorption.”
Sixty percent settled in Tel Aviv and central Israel, 28 percent opted for Haifa and the North, and 7 percent chose the Jerusalem area.