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Immigrants Upset over Decision to End Temporary Resident Status

North American and other Western immigrant associations in Israel are actively lobbying the Knesset Finance Committee to reverse a government decision that would eliminate temporary resident status for new olim, beginning Jan. 1.

The so-called A-1 visa grants new arrivals temporary resident status for five years, during which they are entitled to exemptions from army service and from taxes on the purchase of house-hold goods, electrical appliances and imported cars.

They are also eligible for favorable government mortgages and various medical and social benefits.

After five years, temporary residents must acquire Israeli citizenship and thereby become responsible for paying regular taxes and serving in the Israel Defense Force.

A spokesman for the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel called the Oct. 9 Cabinet decision to eliminate A-1 status “wrong and discriminatory.”

“Western olim should not be punished for misleading Finance Ministry claims that Soviet olim with A-1 temporary resident status are exploiting Western olim rights, to supplement their absorption basket,” said Ira Cohen, referring to the special subsidy that Soviet immigrants receive during their first year.

Such abuses are marginal, he said, since few Soviet olim can take advantage of the benefits given Western olim. And in any case, he added, the number of Western olim is “too small to justify such drastic measures.”

Figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics tend to bear out his charges. Between January and September 1991, only 2,429 potential immigrants holding A-1 temporary resident visas made aliyah, fewer than a third of whom came from North America. During the same period, only seven of the 118,753 Soviet olim arriving in Israel came with A-1 visas.

“Close the loophole, if necessary, but not at the expense of Western aliyah,” said Cohen.

NOT CLEAR WHICH BENEFITS CUT

The Finance Ministry does not understand the fuss.

“Western immigrants will continue to benefit from traditional olim rights,” said ministry spokesman Arie Gru’enblatt. “They are simply being asked to take on immediately the responsibilities and burdens of regular Israeli citizens.”

Despite a Finance Ministry request from Oct. 27, Absorption Ministry officials are only now beginning to draft detailed guidelines on the impending changes.

The new rules apparently will not apply retroactively to olim with A-1 status who arrived prior to January 1992 but have been living in Israel less than five years.

But sources say it is still not clear which benefits will be eliminated and which will remain.

According to one Finance Ministry interpretation, most of the benefits are being guillotined, including: Absorption Ministry financial assistance to olim studying in five-month Hebrew-language ulpanim, medical insurance and social security, easy-term mortgage loans, rent assistance, and student living and tuition allowances.

However, some benefits would be preserved, including exemptions on income, property and sales tax, and waivers of the value-added tax on purchases of household goods, furniture and electrical appliances.

Other Finance Ministry officials reportedly have indicated that there is no need for immigrants to panic, since the government’s decision will not be implemented.

Michael Kleiner, chairman of the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee, is pressing the Finance Ministry to delay implementation of the Cabinet decision until April, to give the government time to introduce an alternate temporary resident visa that would exempt young olim between the ages of 18 and 24 from army service.

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