Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and his cabinet colleague Interior Minister Eli Yishai went toe-to-toe over the migrant deportation issue Monday, with Liberman hinting that Yishai was damaging Israel’s image for narrow political reasons, and Yishai responding that the Foreign Ministry was not doing its job.

Liberman – in an apparent reference to Yishai – said at a Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting that overheated rhetoric over the issue was damaging his ministry’s efforts to find solutions for the 50,000 Eritrean and Sudanese migrants who cannot be deported – as well as harming Israel’s image in the US.

Israel has no diplomatic relations with Sudan, and the UN has declared that migrants from Eritrea cannot be deported because their lives would be in danger.

“There are many people who are sacrificing Israel’s interests for their own narrow electoral party interest,” he said in a clear swipe at Yishai, though he did not mention him by name. “I don’t remember for a long time the degree of criticism coming from Israel’s friends, first and foremost in the US, as has been the case over this story.”

Liberman slammed what he referred to as a “media festival” that accompanied the arrests of South Sudanese migrants and their deportation Sunday night.

Some diplomatic officials said the pictures of the migrants being arrested over the last few weeks, and the triumphant manner in which Yishai went to the airport Sunday to oversee the deportation, were meant to shore up his position among Shas voters prior to the scheduled release this week of the State Comptroller’s Report on the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire – which is expected to be very critical of the interior minister.

The arrests and deportation could have been done with much less fanfare, one official said.

Liberman asked whether Israel wanted to solve the migrant problem, or just talk about it. His ministry, he said, was trying to resolve the issue through quiet contact with other countries, but the harsh political rhetoric over the last few weeks has erased the achievements and created a situation in which it will be impossible to deport 90 percent of the migrants.

According to Liberman, of the 65,000 migrants, 35,000 are from Eritrea and 15,000 from Sudan, and the display surrounding the deportation of a few hundred South Sudanese has erased efforts to find an acceptable solution for the entire problem.

Officials said that Israel has been in negotiations with other African countries that have nationals here illegally, such as Ghana and Nigeria, looking for ways to repatriate them, and that these talks were harmed by the recent events. “People see the pictures, and hear the rhetoric, and say they don’t want to cooperate with us,” one official said.

Diplomatic officials said that Jewish organizational leaders in the US and administration officials have expressed a great deal of criticism about Israel’s handling of the issue.

Liberman said that since the beginning of the campaign to deport the South Sudanese on June 10, 120 migrants have been deported, while another 504 have entered the country, including 70 migrants Monday morning.

“I recommend to all those who really want to solve the problem to stop talking,” he said. “The less people talk, the better are the chances to solve the problem.”

Yishai, meanwhile, fired back at Liberman, saying there are those who “are busy with commentary, and there are those who are busy with actions. The Foreign Ministry should find a country to send the Eritreans to, instead of fighting for honor.” Yishai said he was waiting for a response from the Foreign Ministry about whether the migrants from Eritrea and Sudan could be sent home, or whether a third country can be found to take them.

“There has been no effort at all from the Foreign Ministry to find a solution for the migrants,” he said. “I hope the Foreign Ministry will help, which it hasn’t until now. Of course the world will clap for us if we don’t expel the migrants and we allow more to come in, but I will gladly give up on that applause.”

Diplomatic officials said it was completely unrealistic to believe that any third country would agree to take in the migrants.

Yishai denied this deportation campaign had anything to do with the comptroller’s report on the Carmel fire. He argued that Sunday’s pictures of the deportations could be used by the Foreign Ministry to show “how humane Israel is being to the migrants and improve our public relations.”

What really matters, he said, “is not what the world will say, but what we do for the citizens of Israel.”

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