Israel concerned over possible flood of immigrants Soviets could burden country financially

December 31, 1990|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- As Israel celebrates today the arrival of its 200,000th immigrant of the year, officials are contemplating with growing concern projections that at least twice that number will arrive from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is scheduled to attend a welcoming ceremony tonight at Ben-Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv even as members of his Cabinet acknowledge that the flood of Soviet Jews is outstripping the government's ability to provide basic services.

Ministers predict that all possible housing units will be filled by the end of March, including hotel rooms and requisitioned army camps. After that, officials say, new immigrants will have to be housed in tents or in trailers placed on rooftops.

Ariel Sharon, minister of housing, has said he will place trailers "in every possible and suitable place." But his ministry continues to be involved in squabbles about who is responsible for the problems and whether Israel can afford to buy trailers abroad and to use foreign construction workers.

Most of the immigrants are Soviet Jews; they accounted for 180,000 of this year's 200,000 arrivals. For at least the next one to two years to come, their arrival may seem less like a fairy tale come true than the makings of a national crisis.

Finance Ministry officials estimate that the government will need $40 billion to provide Soviet Jews with housing, jobs and other services. That is far more money than the state can hope to raise through taxation unless living standards are allowed to fall.

Mr. Shamir's 1990 budget was based on the assumption that 40,000 immigrants would arrive during the year, more than in any other year in the last decade. It proved to be only one-fifth the number of immigrants who showed up at Ben-Gurion Airport.

In February, the number of immigrants reached the hitherto unthinkable figure of 1,000 a week. In mid-November, it rose to 1,000 a day, breaking the records set during Israel's first years of existence.

The number continues climbing. About 12,000 immigrants arrived during the last full week of 1990, about half as many as in all of 1989.

If political instability increases in the Soviet Union, officials expect the rate of immigration to increase. Benjamin Netanyahu, deputy foreign minister, has warned that Israel should be prepared to accept as many as 2 million Soviet Jews within the next two to three years.

If 2 million arrived, the number of Jews in Israel would total 4.7 million. The 200,000 arriving this year are already enough to allow Israelis to dream of remaking the nation's economy -- but also to worry about providing housing and jobs.

Officials sound increasingly desperate. Ehud Olmert, minister of health and a confidant of Mr. Shamir, proposed yesterday that 100,000 families take Soviet Jews into their homes for six months. "It could solve the problem," he said.

It might be a solution if the construction industry were not falling ever further behind demand. For this year's newcomers, the country is 25,000 housing units short. Even with a crash construction program, the country will be 70,000 behind within a year, according to Yitzhak Peretz, the minister of charge of absorption.

Mr. Peretz, who has been feuding with Mr. Sharon, recommends that the government house immigrants in tents.

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