Bennett tells ministers to stop using Shaked as a ‘punching bag’ on refugee issue

PM defends interior minister, saying policies coordinated with other ministers and authorities; urges cabinet to present a united front

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right) with Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked during a plenum session at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, February 28, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right) with Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked during a plenum session at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, February 28, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett came to the defense of Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked on Sunday, saying at a cabinet meeting that she should not bear the brunt of criticism by those dissatisfied with the country’s policies toward refugees fleeing the fighting in Ukraine.

Though over 13,000 refugees have arrived in the country since Russia invaded its neighbor, Israel has been slammed for focusing on bringing over as many as possible of those with Jewish descent who are entitled to immigrate, while placing a cap on the number of those who are not.

As war pummels Ukraine and millions flee the country, Israel has come out against taking in large numbers of refugees who are not eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return, a policy spearheaded by Shaked.

Shaked capped the number of refugees to be admitted at 5,000 (in addition to 20,000 who were in the country before war erupted); the number excludes those who are eligible for citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return. Amid a public outcry, however, she later announced that any relatives of Israelis will also be granted entry without a cap.

Bennett said that over the past two weeks Shaked, the No. 2 in his Yamina party and his longtime political ally, has become a “punching bag” for opposition to the government’s refugee policies, according to leaks to Hebrew media.

He said the original plan, and its later alteration, was “coordinated with the relevant bodies, with the foreign minister, with the treasury” and any others who had a say in the matter.

Immigrants fleeing from Ukraine arrive at the immigration and absorption office at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on March 15, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Bennett said Israel “is not embarrassed that our focus is on the absorption of those who are eligible under the Law of Return [Jews and those with at least one Jewish grandparent], and we are also not turning anyone away at the moment,” he said.

The government, he said, is balancing between “humaneness and national interests. We aren’t telling anyone to go back to conflict zones.”

“Anyone who has a problem is welcome to pick up the phone to the interior minister, not the media,” he said in an apparent rebuke of Yulia Malinovsky, a lawmaker for the coalition Yisrael Beytenu party who attacked Shaked’s policies in a Saturday interview with Channel 12 news.

The Population and Immigration Authority reported on Saturday that 13,513 Ukrainian refugees have entered Israel since the outbreak of war almost a month ago. The figure includes approximately 3,500 who are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

They are joined by another several thousand arriving from Russia, Belarus, and other countries in the region.

Since the war broke out, 275 Ukrainian citizens were refused entry to Israel, and 1,127 left the country.

Shaked announced last week that Israel was preparing to take in 100,000 refugees who are eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return.

A woman puts her head in her hands as she sits on a cot in a shelter, set up for displaced persons fleeing Ukraine, inside a school gymnasium in Przemysl, Poland, March 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, File)

On Thursday, Shaked reportedly caused further tumult, saying there was “no chance” Israel would pay for medical insurance for refugees who have arrived in Israel.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz hit back, according to Channel 12 news, saying in a closed meeting: “It is inconceivable that we are receiving people from a war and not giving them medical treatment.”

“It is a shame and a disgrace,” Horowitz added, vowing he wouldn’t let Shaked have her way.

On Sunday, the High Court of Justice was set to rule on a petition against Israel’s policy regarding Ukrainian refugees.

The petition, submitted by a private law firm but with the backing of the Ukrainian embassy, argues that the government’s cap on refugee entries violates international agreements between the nations as well as international conventions to which Israel is a party, and was not imposed with proper authority.

The state on Friday requested the petition be thrown out, arguing that those fleeing the war can seek refuge in neighboring European countries, and that refugees who have “no affiliation with Israel” are not under its jurisdiction.

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, said Sunday that 3,389,044 Ukrainians had escaped the country since the Russian invasion began on February 24.

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