JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A soul-searching debate in Israel over government plans to deport 400 children of migrant workers took a new emotional turn on Sunday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife pleaded they be allowed to stay.
Sara Netanyahu’s appeal was snubbed by Israel’s interior minister, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who advocates whittling down the number of foreign workers, many of whom reside illegally in the Jewish state.
“As a psychologist ... and the mother of two children, I beg you to use your authority to allow most of the 400 children to stay in Israel,” Mrs Netanyahu wrote in a letter to the minister, Eli Yishai of the Shas party.
Yishai, who has called the non-Jewish migrant workers a danger to “the Zionist enterprise,” said he would meet Mrs Netanyahu on Thursday but would not change his policy and could not alter a deportation edict agreed by her husband’s cabinet.
Addressing the status of some 1,200 children of migrant workers, the government decided on a compromise move two weeks ago. It said that youngsters who had lived in Israel for more than five years, spoke Hebrew and attended school could remain.
Under those criteria, 800 children became eligible for residency and 400 were to be deported with their parents within weeks, pending appeals to a government committee.
Supporters of the decision said Israel had no choice but to stem the flow of migrants, thousands of whom sneak into the country through the southern border with Egypt.
Critics, including several thousand who demonstrated in Tel Aviv on Saturday, argue it is immoral for a country dedicated to providing a haven for Jews fleeing persecution to expel migrant children who have known no other home.
Official figures put the number of migrant workers in Israel at around 200,000. Most come from Africa, China and the Philippines; about half are in the country on expired visas. Some 7.5 million people, 75 percent of them Jews, live in Israel.
Speaking on Army Radio after the local media reported on Netanyahu’s letter, Yishai said some of the illegal workers either brought in their children or gave birth in Israel believing “that if they have a baby, they will get a visa,” a reference to legal residency.
“The vacation trip is over,” he said. “Whoever is here illegally, must go back to his country.”
At the August 1 meeting at which his cabinet set the new guidelines, Netanyahu said: “We don’t want to create an incentive for the inflow of hundreds of thousands of illegal workers into the country.”
Opposing the decision and cautioning against a public relations nightmare for Israel, Industry and Trade Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer countered: “This isn’t the Jewish state I know.”
Editing by Michael Roddy