Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski is expecting a 10 to 15 percent increase in aliya from France and North America in 2006, but does not anticipate a major jump in immigrants from Venezuela.
"There is no panic," he said of the 15,000-member South American Jewish community living under the rule of President Hugo Chavez, whose anti-American and allegedly anti-Semitic comments have led to some discomfort in Jewish quarters.
"I don't think there will be a meaningful, all-of-a- sudden running away. Those that planned their aliya will come. Those that haven't planned it keep in touch with us, and when they're ready, so we're ready for them," Bielski told The Jerusalem Post in an interview ahead of next week's World Zionist Congress.
Bielski is now completing his first year at the helm of the Jewish Agency. Because he took over from Sallai Meridor the year before Meridor's term was due to expire, Bielski faces re-election this year. Unlike last year's contest with Natan Sharansky, Bielski is not expected to face any obstacles to retaining his post.
He described his year in office as having filled him with a sense of 'urgency.'
Working around the Jewish world, particularly in the Former Soviet Union and North America, he said, "I couldn't believe the assimilation that is apparently happening on a daily basis, and as a shaliyah [emissary] of the Zionist movement and of the State of Israel, I feel the urgency of trying to get to these people as quickly as possible and connect them to Israel."
He assessed his first year, in which aliya increased from 22,134 to 22,657 according to agency figures, as successful even if the numbers weren't as high as he would have liked. For 2006 he predicted 25,000 olim would come, an increase of 9.3%, with 1,500 to 2,000 more than came last year from France and North America, the biggest groups of Western olim.
"Aliya today is aliya by choice. If we want olim, we have to see that they first visit Israel, that they touch the country, they meet with Israelis, and they understand that this is the only Jewish state we've got,' he said. 'Sometimes I say to potential olim that if there was another Jewish state, I would recommend you go to the other Jewish state. But Israel is our only Jewish state, and for those for whom the continuation of Jewish life is important, Israel is the only guarantee for this."
Bielski indicated, though, that he didn't expect a significant increase in olim from the UK, despite Nefesh B' Nefesh launching a new British branch of its operations this summer.
He acknowledged the treatment new olim receive at the Interior Ministry can be a deterrent for those seeking to make aliya. But, he said, "I make myself available personally to all those people who contact me, and I've got my ways to push it, and those who fit the criteria will be processed with the help of the minister and myself."
The Jewish Agency is opening its first-ever ombudsman's office to help new immigrants cope with bureaucracy in places like the Interior Ministry, as first reported in the Post earlier this week.
Bielski added that he's a 'good friend' of new Interior Minister Roni Bar-On, with whom he meets 'on a constant basis.'
"One of the things on the agenda is to ease the process, and the minister of the interior is a part of this," he said. "The minister hasn't got patience. He says, "I want it yesterday." And I say, "I want it before yesterday." So between him and me, we understand each other."
There have been complaints from members of the Ethiopian Jewish community and advocacy groups that the government has not, however, made it as easy as it could for those left in Ethiopia to come to Israel. In fact, the government has failed to implement two decisions, one in 2003 and one in 2005, which would have increased the rate of arrival for those coming from Ethiopia. The number of Falash Mura - Ethiopian descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity and have since returned to Judaism, and who come to Israel under the Law of Entry rather than the Law of Return - now stands at 300 per month.
To charges that Israel doesn't want to bring this group of people, Bielski replied, 'There is a lot of effort from the government' on this subject.
"Once the decision was taken, the whole country went into turmoil, elections, new government, [former] prime minister [Ariel] Sharon is in a hospital. The new prime minister just walked into his office. I'm sure that they're going to deal with this in the next few weeks," he said.
The government is scheduled to hold a meeting on the Falash Mura on Tuesday, half-way through the World Zionist Congress assembly. The following week, the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors will be meeting. One of the agency's main funders, the United Jewish Communities, recently started the Operation Promise campaign to raise $100 million for bringing those left in Ethiopia to Israel and easing their absorption.
Bielski said that there was no gap between American Jewry, which is campaigning to bring the Ethiopians to Israel as quickly as possible, and the government's policy.
"The government is very serious about it, and from all my negotiations with government officials, I feel that there is understanding for this issue," he stressed.
Bielski has termed his role as agency chairman his third 'shlihut,' or mission, on behalf of the Jewish people. His first was as an emissary in South Africa, where he met his wife, and his second was as mayor of Ra'anana, a city which has many Anglo olim.
Reflecting on his first year in his third shlihut, he said what had struck him most about this job was that in his current role, 'I meet people from various countries, various language, different mentalities. But the beauty is that we all agree on Jewish values and the centrality of the State of Israel, and it makes it a fascinating and meaningful mission for myself.'