Fearing campaign spectacle, minister cancels ceremony for Ethiopian immigrants

Pnina Tamano-Shata berates Netanyahu, Likud’s Miri Regev for seeking to co-opt event for political gain; Gantz said he wouldn’t attend after learning PM would be there

In this photo from the Jewish Agency, Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata (left) and Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog (center) greet 119 new immigrants from Ethiopia at Ben Gurion Airport, May 21, 2020. (Shlomi Amsalem)
In this photo from the Jewish Agency, Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata (left) and Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog (center) greet 119 new immigrants from Ethiopia at Ben Gurion Airport, May 21, 2020. (Shlomi Amsalem)

Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata called off a planned Thursday ceremony meant to greet hundreds of new immigrants to Israel from Ethiopia over fears the prime minister and other cabinet members would use it to score political points.

The member of the Blue and White alliance made the decision after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would appear at the ceremony, prompting Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who heads her party, to bow out.

“I am telling Netanyahu not to come,” said Tamano-Shata, the first Ethiopian-born minister.

“I am canceling the ceremony. I will not allow Regev or Netanyahu to perform their political circus at the expense of new immigrants,” she told Ynet in a live interview.

The ceremony for 300 new immigrants was scheduled to be held 12 days before Israel has another national election, the fourth in two years.

“As the minister of immigration and absorption, who knows that these new immigrants suffered in Ethiopia for many years, I will not let them play games with my community,” she said.

Instead of a ceremony, the minister is set to greet those arriving at Ben Gurion Airport with a “modest reception.”

Hours after the cancellation, Netanyahu announced he would be visiting the United Arab Emirates on Thursday for his first official visit.

Pnina Tamano-Shata announces that she’s canceling the welcome ceremony for Ethiopian immigrants in light of political meddling fears. (Screen capture: Twitter/Ynet)

The airport ceremony had sparked political fighting between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White.

On Tuesday, Transportation Minister Miri Regev (Likud) demanded that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit prevent Gantz from attending the ceremony in Ben Gurion Airport, according to a Ynet report.

In response, Gantz canceled his appearance, blaming “the political contamination of Netanyahu.”

He criticized Regev and her party: “Likud has neglected Ethiopian immigrants for years and left families torn apart. The absorption minister was able to airlift 2,000 Ethiopian immigrants in a complicated operation during COVID, and the transportation minister who hasn’t come to welcome any of the eight flights is busy with pictures and captions.”

“The operation to bring new immigrants to Israel that [Tamano-Shata] is leading, despite the many challenges wrought by Netanyahu, is an important act of Zionism and should not be turned into a political circus which Netanyahu hoped to do through the use of Miri Regev,” added Gantz.

After the Prime Minister’s Office announced that Netanyahu would attend the ceremony, Tamano-Shata slammed the prime minister and Regev, accusing them of engaging in “cheap politics” to win votes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Transport Minister Miri Regev in the Knesset on February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gantz and Tamano-Shata have stated that the immigration and absorption of Ethiopian Jews waiting to come to Israel will remain a core demand of the Blue and White party for any future government. The party also lead the initiative to pass Government Resolution 429, which began bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel in December 2020.

The flight arriving from Ethiopia on Thursday is the ninth and final of Operation Tzur Israel, a government effort to bring around 2,000 members of the Ethiopian Jewish community to Israel. This mission was spearheaded by Tamano-Shata who arrived in Israel as a young girl as part of Operation Moses, a 1984 airlift that brought 6,000 Ethiopian Jews to the country from Sudan.

Those still waiting to immigrate to Israel from Ethiopia face increasingly dangerous circumstances. The recent outbreak of war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region has killed thousands, displaced 2 million and created tens of thousands of refugees in neighboring Sudan. There are thought to be 7,000 to 12,000 Ethiopian community members still waiting to come to Israel, many of whom live in the Tigray region.

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