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Israeli immigration down 45perc { May 9 2003 }

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Friday, May 09, 2003 Iyyar 7, 5763
Immigration to Israel down 45% as gov't slashes benefits

By Annette Young

Immigration to Israel has dropped by 45 percent in the first four months of 2003, compared to the same period last year, a senior official in the Jewish Agency said Thursday, blaming the dramatic decline largely on the government's move to slash immigrant benefits.

According to the Jewish Agency, only 5,900 people immigrated to Israel in the first four months of 2003, compared to a little over 10,000 in the same period last year.

"Aliyah [immigration] has seriously slowed down because of these measures along with the war in Iraq and the current economic situation," the agency's director of immigration, Mike Rosenberg told Anglo File. "These measures are a real blow to our efforts to promote aliyah. It certainly doesn't swing people in our direction."

The government has come under fire from the Jewish Agency and immigrant associations over moves to slash housing benefits for immigrants as part of its emergency economic plan.

It has also proposed removing the VAT exemption on the purchase of Israeli-made furniture along with the partial customs exemption on the purchase of a new car.

Rosenberg said the government "had made a big mistake with these measures; aliyah is a strategic interest for Israel."

"Our people out in the field report back that there is a real slowing down in those wanting to come here. A major Argentinian daily even reported on its front page recently that with the cancellation of these subsidies, 'Israel is not interested in immigrants.'"

Rosenberg's comments came as the government said yesterday it was planning to reinstate home-buying grants for immigrants from four countries - Argentina, Uruguay, France and South Africa.

The concession was made in response to a petition to the High Court of Justice by the Jewish Agency and immigrant associations against the cancellation of the grants on April 15.

Sources say that in the last few weeks, there have been negotiations between Absorption Minister Tzipi Livni and the Finance Ministry in order to postpone the implementation of the new system for immigrants from the four countries mentioned above. According to the same sources, the measure could be postponed for these groups for up to six months.

However, Rosenberg said that even if the postponement is implemented, "it is only a partial solution and leaves the majority of immigrants in a precarious situation."

In its petition, the Jewish Agency claimed the government had reneged on its commitments when it decided to convert housing grants to loans for immigrants.

The decision took effect despite the fact that the Knesset has yet to approve the budget; the government claimed it was allowed to impose this particular measure without the need for Knesset approval.

Before April 15, immigrants were entitled to a government mortgage composed of a subsidized loan and a grant. Under the new system, the grant will be converted to a loan, which will result in higher monthly mortgage payments.

Meanwhile, the High Court on Thursday granted a 21-day extension to the government to allow it to prepare its response to the petition.

But the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Sallai Meridor, said Thursday that the hearing's postponement meant the government was continuing "to refrain from giving housing grants to immigrants, causes grave hardship and directly harms a large population of immigrants who already came to Israel, and others who are in various stages of their aliyah procedures."

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