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Bennett weighs offering help to transport Afghan refugees to third countries

PM won’t resettle refugees in Israel, but, in gesture to Biden, may suggest assisting in airlifting fleeing Afghans out of US airbases, sources say

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Afghan refugees arrive at Dulles International Airport on August 27, 2021, in Dulles, Virginia, after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. (Olivier DOULIERY/AFP)
Afghan refugees arrive at Dulles International Airport on August 27, 2021, in Dulles, Virginia, after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. (Olivier DOULIERY/AFP)

WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is weighing offering the Biden administration Israel’s assistance in transporting Afghan refugees from US bases to a third country of resettlement, two sources familiar with the matter confirmed to The Times of Israel on Sunday.

The sources clarified that Israel was not offering to resettle any refugees in the Jewish state and that those fleeing the country since the Taliban’s takeover would not set foot on Israeli soil. However, the proposal under consideration would see Israel help in the airlift of the refugees from US military bases in Qatar and Kuwait — where thousands who managed to escape are currently being housed — to a third country of resettlement.

The sources declined to provide further details, with one of them describing the sensitive proposal as “still in flux.”

A coalition official said the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry had both been approached by US officials on the Afghan refugee issue, without elaborating further.

The transport idea was then floated by Bennett’s aides ahead of the premier’s trip to Washington last week as a possible goodwill gesture to the Biden administration by the new Israeli prime minister, said one source familiar with the discussions.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office denied that such a proposal was being considered.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to comment, while another official in the office said that conversations on the matter are still in the early stages.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks as he meets with US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

This would not be the first time Israel offered its assistance in a refugee crisis that does not involve Jews.

From 1977 to 1979, then-prime minister Menachem Begin welcomed about 360 Vietnamese boat people fleeing for their lives from the Communist takeover of their country. Israel granted them citizenship, full rights and government-subsidized apartments.

In public remarks following his one-on-one meeting with Biden on Friday, Bennett offered his “condolences and deep sadness” on behalf of the Israeli people to the US. He said the US soldiers killed in a Thursday attack at Kabul airport were there to save lives and that this was “the very definition of courage and sacrifice. May they rest in peace.”

Newly arrived refugees from Vietnam ride the bus to the Ben Gurion Airport arrivals terminal, June 26, 1977 (Moshe Milner/GPO)

On Sunday the US State Department issued a joint statement on behalf of dozens of countries — including Israel — stating their commitment to ensuring safe travel out of Afghanistan for “our citizens, nationals and residents, employees, Afghans who have worked with us and those who are at risk can continue to travel freely to destinations outside Afghanistan.”

The statement said the countries have received assurances from the Taliban that those they issue with travel authorization will be allowed “to proceed in a safe and orderly manner to points of departure and travel outside the country.” The countries added that they intend to continue issuing travel documentation to designated Afghans.

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