Michael Oren: I am the most qualified person to be immigration minister
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Michael Oren: I am the most qualified person to be immigration minister

Former ambassador to the US says his Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon has ‘demanded’ Netanyahu give him the portfolio

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Kulanu MK Michael Oren, June 20, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Kulanu MK Michael Oren, June 20, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Kulanu party MK Michael Oren, a former ambassador to the United States, said Sunday that he was the most qualified person to be Israel’s immigration and absorption minister and should be appointed to replace the current temporary head of the ministry, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I am the person most qualified for the position,” Oren told The Times of Israel in an interview after Netanyahu informed cabinet members that he would fill the role on Sunday. “If the appointment is made on just a professional level, I don’t think there is really much of a choice to be made.”

Oren served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington from 2009 to 2013, before joining the ranks of the newly formed Kulanu party and being elected to the Knesset in 2015. A year later he was appointed deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and head of public diplomacy.

Both as a Knesset member and as a deputy minister, Oren said, he has made aliyah — Jewish immigration to Israel — a top focus and priority.

“I have been working throughout my term in the Knesset on issues relating to immigration and absorption,” he said.

“No one else has done as much work as I have on these issues,” he said, noting his establishment of the Knesset lone-soldier lobby, work with French aliyah groups and preparations for what he predicts will be a “large-scale aliyah” from the UK should Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn be elected prime minister.

Arriving in Israel, US President Donald Trump shakes hands with former US ambassador to the US, Deputy Minister Michael Oren MK, at Ben-Gurion Airport on May 21, 2017 (Courtesy)

He also noted he was among the sponsors of a 2016 bill codifying the grassroots Aliyah Day, an annual celebration of Jewish immigration to Israel.

Facing criticism over the numerous ministerial portfolios he currently holds, Netanyahu told his cabinet ministers on Sunday that he would fulfill a promise to appoint one of them immigration minister by the end of day.

“I have to announce the minister of immigration and absorption by 12 a.m., and I will do so,” the prime minister told ministers during the weekly cabinet meeting, according to a coalition source, and said that a cabinet vote on the appointment would take place by telephone.

Netanyahu, who inherited the ministry from Yisrael Beytenu’s Sofa Landver when her party quit the government in November, is not obliged by law to appoint someone to the role, but promised his ministers earlier this month that he would do so by Sunday.

Oren said that under Landver, herself an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, the ministry had focused its efforts on Russian aliyah, while many expats from Europe and the US felt neglected.

“If you talk to people who are not from that community, they feel that there has been a great emphasis on Russian aliyah, which has been a great success, but we need to look at what we do now about the future,” Oren said.

“I think the time has come to look beyond Russian aliyah,” he said.

The Leopold family of Las Vegas meets Israel’s minister of aliyah and integration, Sofa Landver (c), after arriving on their aliyah charter flight with Nefesh B’Nefesh. (Shahar Azran)

Several senior Likud lawmakers are interested in the post of immigration minister, with the current deputy foreign minister, MK Tzipi Hotovely, considered a front-runner, according to coalition sources. But Oren said Kulanu’s chairman, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, agreed he was the best man for the job and has “demanded” Netanyahu give him the role.

Kulanu sources have said they believe the party should receive the ministry, citing the fact that Jewish Home, with eight Knesset seats, has three ministers while Kulanu has 10 seats and only two ministers.

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely in Washington, November 2017. (Shmulik Almany/MFA)

Oren said Netanyahu has not spoken with him directly about the position, but “certainly knows” of his interest.

Oren has made headlines in the past year for a number of public spats with foreign diplomats, regularly using Twitter to lambaste decisions he regards as unfair to Israel. In June he made waves by proposing to pay thousands of young non-Orthodox Jews in the United States per year to immigrate to Israel, explaining that they are prone to assimilation.

On Sunday he said he believed Israel “should be encouraging and facilitating aliyah from the United States in a non-offensive way.”

Amid criticism of his holding a number of key portfolios, Netanyahu also told his ministers on Sunday that he would keep another promise to appoint someone else foreign minister by next month. A number of senior Likud ministers are pining for that role, with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Transportation Minister Israel Katz claiming to have already been promised the portfolio by Netanyahu.

Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Avichai Mandelblit at a cabinet meeting on January 4, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90)

On Monday Knesset members voted to formalize Netanyahu’s appointment as permanent defense minister, a position he appointed himself to after Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman resigned, citing Israel’s policy toward Gaza. 

Netanyahu asserted at the time that Israel was in the midst of a military campaign, which he claimed he was the only person capable of steering the country through.

Besides serving as prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister and immigration minister, Netanyahu is also the health minister. He has thus far only served as the temporary immigration minister, an arrangement that can last no longer than three months and cannot be extended.

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