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Sharon’s Request for Foreign Workers Brings Rebuke from Deputy Minister

Housing Minister Ariel Sharon’s call to bring in construction workers from abroad to meet the housing shortage has snowballed into a minor coalition crisis.

The ministerial Aliyah Cabinet, which is headed by Sharon, approved a recommendation to allow building firms to import skilled workers from abroad. Sharon said that there is a shortage now of 10,000 building workers, and that no progress could be made on the mass housing program for immigrants without importing some workers.

Deputy Labor and Social Affairs Minister Menachem Porush objected to the decision of the Aliyah Cabinet, saying that this should not be done “at a time when there are 110,000 unemployed Israelis, and Soviet immigrants are coming in every day.” The Histadrut trade union federation also expressed opposition to the plan.

In response, Sharon said on Monday that if Porush is opposed to bringing in workers from abroad, then he should agree to mobilize 10,000 yeshiva students for emergency work on construction sites. Porush is a leader of the Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party, which acts as the patron of the traditionalist yeshivot.

Porush was offended by Sharon’s proposal, saying that it indicated that Sharon was seeking to break up the government coalition. Porush called on Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to force Sharon to retract his proposal.

Meanwhile, the heads of the hesder yeshivot, which combine Torah study with military service, said Tuesday that they are willing to allow their students to work part time on construction sites.

In contrast to the hesder yeshivot, the students of the traditionalist yeshivot are exempt from military duty or any other kind of alternative national service.

A spokesman for the construction industry said Israel needs to double the number of housing starts this year, from 50,000 to 100,000.

He said that even if more veteran Israelis and immigrants join the building trades, which they have been doing, doubling housing starts cannot be accomplished “without importing several thousand foreign workers to train local people in certain skills.”

The number of Soviet immigrants is expected to drop this month from 35,000 to between 20,000 and 25,000. During the first week of January, 2,975 Soviet immigrants arrived. Late last month, similar numbers were arriving in 24 hours.

A spokesman for the Jewish Agency said that for administrative reasons in the Soviet Union, more newcomers arrive at the end of the month than the beginning. He added that a general drop-off is expected this month because the Soviet emigration authority, OVIR, is behind in processing the huge volume of exit applications.

He also said that some prospective immigrants may be worried about coming before Jan. 15, when the United Nations ultimatum to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein expires.

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