The Interior Ministry got leaner this spring when Roni Bar-On took over the office responsible for regional councils and foreign workers, citizenship and sewage. Bar-On, 58, has slimmed down recently, shedding some political baggage as well as several kilos when he finally secured a weighty government post. Yet he still seems to have the heft, admirers and detractors say, to get things done in a place infamous for lethargy.
"He's a leader. He can really make people follow the party line," says Lior Chorev, a key Kadima campaign strategist who worked closely with Bar-On before the election.
That could serve Bar-On well in a place where previous ministers have been unable to get their staff to follow their directions. Both Avraham Poraz of Shinui and Ophir Paz-Pines from Labor, for instance, wanted their ministries to cut red tape and implement more liberal policies but in the end couldn't mobilize the bureaucracy to change course. They also both had difficulty getting the government to back their initiatives. Poraz ultimately failed to convince an inter-ministerial committee to give residency to children of foreign workers; after a lengthy battle Paz-Pines secured the status for a limited number of applicants. Within six weeks weeks of assuming the reins, by contrast, Bar-On pushed through a much-loosened list of criteria to grant many more children and their families the right to stay in Israel.
"It's a big step," according to Yoav Loeff of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, an organization that has often butted heads with the Interior Ministry and pushes for rights for foreign workers. "It's a big change, but I can speak only about this [step]" since Bar-On is still an unknown quantity, Loeff says.
Of course, in the case of foreign workers' children, it helps that Bar-On's stance seemed to have had the backing of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. And that principle can be applied more generally, as Chorev explains of Bar-On's success: "The fact that he's well-connected with Olmert is very important."
Indeed, the new minister was an early and firm ally of Olmert's, and of prime minister Ariel Sharon's, as they moved out of the Likud and set up Kadima.
He became a household name in 1997 when he served as attorney general for a mere 24 hours in Binyamin Netanyahu's administration. He stepped down amid a public outcry; it was alleged that he had been selected to lessen the punishment facing Shas leader Aryeh Deri over corruption charges in return for Deri's support of the Hebron Agreement. He was also perceived as being a party functionary without the experience or skills for the job of the state's top legal official. After a flirtation with the Jerusalem mayor's office - a romance that turned sour when he lost the Likud primaries to anonymous deputy mayor Yigal Amedi - Bar-On set about shoring up Sharon's support, distinguishing himself most emphatically on the issue of disengagement and the formation of Kadima. He was again on the threshold of a major appointment when Sharon promised him a ministry late in his term, only to be thwarted by Likud rebels who nixed the move. In the brief period of the transitional government, Bar-On served as minister of National Infrastructure and minister of Science and Technology.
"He's the turbo engine of Kadima today, especially when it comes to media relations," says Chorev, who notes that whenever Kadima needed a sharp response to press reports, Bar-On could always be called. And it wasn't just political opportunism, according to Chorev. "He was a politician who didn't think about what was good for him or bad for him. [For example] he really thought that disengagement was something to fight for."
Some political adversaries beg to differ. He faced a host of ill-will within his own party even before the Likud-Kadima split, with some of the most vitriolic attacks coming from former Likud MK Gila Gamliel, who at one point accused House Committee Chairman Bar-On of chauvinism following a heated debate on the status of her own Committee for the Advancement of Women.
But even his critics acknowledge that the veteran lawyer and lieutenant-colonel (res.) has the political muscle best flexed in the kind of closed-door meetings where much of Interior Ministry business gets done. Some have suggested that Olmert, heading a party with scant local apparatus, named an interior minister who would bolster relations with the several dozen mayors already loyal to Kadima and widen the local authority circle of support. Chorev, however, points to a recent speech in which Bar-On told mayors in no uncertain terms they needed to shape up or ship out. "It's really a tough job. It's not a place where you automatically gain sympathy," he explains. As Interior Minister, "you have to say, 'No.'"
As Bar-On sits before the Jewish Agency Board of Governors Tuesday, in his first major meeting with Diaspora leaders since becoming minister, he might have to repeat that word some more. Last week for starters, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post at his Jerusalem bureau, he expressed a different opinion on the urgency of bringing Falash Mura to Israel than that embraced by American Jewry's leaders. Then again, he might win them over with his obvious skepticism about the Orthodox monopoly on life-cycle events and apparent support for civil marriage.
And his own ties to the Diaspora experience are clear when he mentions his Polish-born parents, who escaped the Holocaust and made their way to Israel. Bar-on was born in Tel Aviv two weeks after the birth of his nation.
Bar-On, who was speaking to the Post several days before the cross-border attack in which two soldiers were killed and a third captured near Kerem Shalom, was a courteous and attentive interviewee, if plainly short for time. Indeed, the pressures of his schedule meant that our conversation lasted somewhat less than an hour, with many questions yet to be asked.
There are complaints from would-be immigrants that the Interior Ministry is not a source of encouragement - but rather makes new "olim" feel like foreign workers.
Worldwide, immigration is out of favor. Nonetheless, Israel is a country of immigrant absorption. So far as the Interior Ministry is concerned, I, in the shortest period possible, want to turn the Population Registry into an institution that truly serves the citizens.
We have very grave problems in some of our branches, problems of location and manpower. We are planning reforms. My predecessor was presented with recommendations for wide-ranging reforms to improve service. People shouldn't have to stand in lines to change their data if they have another child or move to another address. There should be only symbolic charges for these kinds of things which should be doable by mail, phone or Internet. Those with real problems should get real, personal service. We need to become service-minded.
There's also an inherent problem in the Population Registry because of geopolitical realities. Lots more people want to live here than leave here. Foreign workers, illegal immigrants, those without rights ...
Let's talk about some of these different groups - the Falash Mura, Sudanese refugees, foreign workers.
The Falash Mura issue has not been resolved to date primarily for budgetary reasons. Bringing the Falash Mura at the pace that was set by the last government a year ago would take NIS 3.5 to 4 billion. That's a serious amount of money. I don't know if I can say that, in our list of priorities, we can or should do this now. The Treasury doesn't know either.
If somebody gave me the money ... I'd only be moving the problem from there to here. Because even if I had all the money, I don't know if I could say that we're geared up to absorb this whole number. Because even those people coming at the current low rate are stuck in absorption centers longer than they should be. This is just perpetuating a social status, which means they will never be part of Israeli society. They live in ghettos. They don't get out of these ghettos. That's not absorption.
And they always end up going to the same local authorities. No strong, stable local authority opens its doors to them. The government's decision also says that they have to study in orthodox schools. But there are no places in such schools for them. It is thus that [their] schools are becoming solely Ethiopian. That's not how to absorb immigrants.
There are two basic problems: Money and mass absorption. [In a meeting on the issue] I asked the absorption minister and the heads of the Jewish Agency whether, if I got the money and brought in all the Falash Mura, the available means for their absorption would be satisfactory. They said no.
Philosophically, does Israel even want them all?
Look, that argument is already behind us. We've agreed on a number - 10,300. That's it. Finished. And they're coming at the rate that it's possible to bring them.
But the American federations have made this a big issue. And they're raising funds.
I don't want to get into that. There are too many interests. Let's not drag these poor people into these battles.
Okay. What of the Sudanese?
There are three million Sudanese refugees from Darfur in Egypt. You don't need to tell me about refugees fleeing genocide. I understand it just fine. Our border with Egypt is readily breachable, and all of those three million would rather live in Israel than in Egypt. If you held a referendum, you'd get 100 percent for Israel.
Bring them in and you've got a problem. You can't put them anywhere else afterwards. You can't send them back to Sudan, where genocide is taking place. Egypt would just push them back our way. There are times when [handfuls of refugees] are intercepted at the border and we try to send them back, and the Egyptians send them back to us. It's ping-pong.
So we're trying to handle this issue with kid gloves. There are already around 200 here. We've sent the younger ones to kibbutzim. We'll play it by ear.
What a situation! Here I am, saying that I'm prepared to relinquish parts of my homeland in order to guarantee a Jewish majority. And on the other hand, am I going to make this a land of refugees? It's quite a problem.
What about the foreign workers' children, many of whom were recently granted permanent residency?
That's a different story. Because I know the numbers and because I can create parameters and a one-time move, I've given two months [for the children of foreign workers to apply for citizenship]. Then I'll end the whole process. The numbers will be reasonable.
We're talking about children who didn't come voluntarily to Israel. Their parents either brought them or gave birth to them here. Forcing them out would be to uproot them from their culture. In some cases, these children only know Hebrew. They know no other culture. They celebrate our holidays. They want to serve in the army. The maximum number will be 1,000 ... The state of Israel can deal with that.
So why has there been criticism that this is the beginning of the end of the State of Israel?
I've said [to the critics] in Shas and the NRP that if they're so worried about preserving the Jewish majority of Israel, they should support the realignment plan.
Will those who miss the deadline, or are ineligible, face deportation?
We have to enforce the law. I've made a concession. But it's all a matter of checks and balances.
The president of the Supreme Court said this week that the absence of a right to civil marriage is a breach of human rights. What do you say?
There are almost 400,000 people in this country who, because of their lack of religious status, cannot get married under the Israeli marriage laws. Three years ago, Arik Sharon appointed me to head a coalition committee, including Rabbi Nissan Slomiansky [of the National Religious Party], Roni Brizon from Shinui and Yuri Shtern from the National Union. We almost a reached a solution acceptable to rabbinical leaders. This solution was called Mitvei Brit Hazugiyut (Draft on Civil Unions). The materials prepared by that committee could be used, in the lifespan of this government, to find a real solution - a real solution, not a new controversy over the status of the Orthodox Torah community.
More generally, the Orthodox rabbinate controls life-cycle events in Israel. Do you favor that monopoly?
I will never agree to Orthodox institutions interfering in the freedom of religion, or freedom of no-religion, of a citizen. At the same time, I will never sanction provocations against the Orthodox. Everyone should live according to his beliefs. And the government should regulate this, so that everyone feels good.
You've said the Interior Ministry will rescind the Jerusalem residency rights of four Palestinian legislators from Hamas in the near future. Will that change if Hamas accepts the prisoners' document that is currently being debated between Fatah and Hamas?
The whole prisoners' document is an internal PA issue, in part a test of [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas's leadership. Neither the document nor the [possible] referendum [on its contents] are of any relevance for Israeli policy. We have our three standard demands from the Hamas-led PA: recognition of Israel, abandonment of terror and the honoring of previously signed agreements and obligations. When we talk about recognition, we're not talking about something rhetorical. We mean genuine recognition of Israel, in terms of behavior, in terms of a joint way of life.
Any purported gesture of support for Abbas's path, or for the prisoners' document, will not meet the test of a feasible relationship between us and the PA. Because that relationship is solely and absolutely dependent on those three demands being met. Furthermore, of course, we cannot be satisfied, neither strategically nor tactically, with less than what the international community is demanding of the PA.
Now to tie that to the four [Hamas] gentlemen: These people are members of a foreign government. So far, so good. But when that foreign government is an enemy - not merely hostile, but it declares its aim to destroy your country - they can't seek to live here as permanent residents. Because permanent residency, a kind of reduced citizenship, requires that you be loyal to the place where you are allowed to live. Your loyalty cannot be to an authority that talks of destroying that place.
If Hamas meets the three conditions - and I have grave doubts that that's going to happen - then that could affect the issue of the four.
Practically speaking, I gave them 30 days from the 24th or 25th of May to tell me either that they are resigning their roles in that foreign power, in which case they would be able to stay if there are no criminal or security impediments, or to explain to me why I should excuse them of the demand for loyalty that I require from every citizen and every person to whom I give permanent residency.
The gong is now about to sound. If they give me an answer, I will examine it. If they don't give an answer ...
What do you make of the prisoners' document? Is it serious, positive, negative?
I'm ambivalent. It cannot influence my relations with the Hamas-led PA.
Ambivalent? Even though this is the document that neither recognizes Israel nor contradicts the notion of its phased destruction?
I mean ambivalent in the sense of our relations. This document has no weight in that relationship.
Do you anticipate international pressure on Israel to deal with the PA if this document is accepted there?
No. If this document is accepted, I'd expect to see it as the beginning of a process in which the president of that part of the PA that is sane pushes to achieve the acceptance of the conditions we have issued for the Hamas government.
In other words, it's a potential internal opening over there?
Maybe. First of all, the position we staked out has succeeded. Just look at the collapse in the status of Hamas since it won power. Lots of people in the PA are slapping themselves on the head about the "mistake" they made in electing Hamas. They realize it was a misguided move. It has achieved nothing. In my opinion, if elections were held today in the PA, Hamas would not win.
Hamas was not elected because of its political position. Hamas was elected as an anti-corruption move, anti-Arafat, anti-Fatah. That may have been fine internally, but externally it has brought the PA to crisis. Crisis with the international community. Crisis with us ... So it may be that now the time has come, as Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] says - although it's not clear he has the power to say, "Okay, chapter one is over. We've cleansed our administration of corruption. Now let's hold another round of elections, change our leadership again, and have a leadership that is not corrupt and can also give us benefits on the diplomatic front internationally and in interaction with the state of Israel."
You think Abbas is essentially pushing toward new elections?
This entire move [preparing for a referendum on the prisoners document] undermines Hamas's rule.
That's not elections.
But they's already talking about some kind of unity government. They weren't saying that three months ago. The reality is that Israel's uncompromising stance, backed up by the US, the Quartet, the whole international community, has placed them under pressure ...
And the new Quartet-backed funding mechanism won't reduce that?
Not in my opinion. [French President Jacques] Chirac restated his commitment [to the three preconditions]. [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair did the same.
The free world, facing up to fundamentalist terror, cannot demand that Israel negotiate with a state controlled by those who call for its destruction. That's clear to the French, the British, very likely the Russians, certainly the US. We're not taking an obstructionist position. We're saying we want to talk, but not with an entity that says to us, "You cannot exist; we're going to destroy you."
Do we detect a new emphasis from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on a willingness to negotiate rather than act unilaterally over a major West Bank pullback?
I don't feel any such change. We're where we always were. It's the media that is trying to stress a kind of change. When we said before that "we want to negotiate," you said it was lip service and that the real intention was to get up and leave. We always said we wanted to negotiate - during and after the election campaign.
But you also always stressed that you thought there was no one to talk to.
I still don't think there's anyone to talk to in the current situation. But it's not lip service.
Believe me, I've been a lawyer for 30 years. I've made lots of agreements, but I've also made a lot of unilateral moves as a lawyer. When there was no partner, I ultimately did what was possible and legally right. You can't sit and wait forever. If you say that you won't make the move until the other side is ready to negotiate, and the other side doesn't want the move to happen, the other side will never come to negotiate. That's why you give a deadline - although not with a calendar date.
The backing we are getting from the international community depends on the integrity of our efforts to negotiate. Eventually, the international community will understand that there's no one to talk to, and that a unilateral move is the right move.
And if there is a unilateral pullback, do you see any indication that the international community will legitimize an expanded sovereign Israel? They won't oppose a pullback, but will they recognize a redefining of our borders to include extra territory?
In the end, there will be [international recognition]. Will we get an immediate international rubber-stamp for the first border line we stake out? That I can't say. But the dynamic of the process in the Middle East, and especially in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is that whoever takes the initiative gets the support ... The support we have today from the international community for our plan is [already] far greater than that which Arik Sharon had for disengagement.
The bottom line, you're saying, is that the international community will legitimize an Israel greater than its pre-'67 borders?
More than that. After Olmert's visit to the US, to Blair and to Chirac, I feel this even more strongly. If they'd had any intention to say, "Folks, if you want to act unilaterally, it's back to '67," they would have said it. In the past, when they had demands for us, they knew exactly how to express them. But when Bush, at that forum [with Olmert], calls realignment "bold" ...
"Bold" is not the most positive endorsement.
Not so. Had Bush not wanted to be positive, he would have said "adventurous." "Bold" in this context was positive.
And from Blair and Chirac we heard very clear positions. They could have complained that our pre-conditions for negotiation were manipulative and indicated that we didn't really want to negotiate. They didn't. They adopted our pre-conditions. Indeed, they drew them up with us. They could have said, "Do what you wish and you'll bear the consequences." They didn't say that either.
But Israel is seeking a very different kind of support this time: support to add extra territory to its sovereign state.
When we disengaged, it was also seen as a kind of landmark event from Israel's point of view. It had been consensual that no one was going to mess with Gush Katif. It wasn't like the depths of Jenin, Hebron and Nablus that even the super right-wingers like me thought we'd ultimately relinquish. We were talking about the hard core of the settlement enterprise - and not only the Likud and the kippa-wearing National Religious Party and National Union. Mapai, Labor, semi-leftist movements were there.
That [pullout] was also the first time we'd done something like this. Now everybody looks at what we're talking about doing [in the West Bank] as something almost to be taken for granted, because we've already been through Gush Katif. Before the Gaza pullout, they spoke of civil war among the Jews, no chance, it won't happen ...
Are you saying that because the dire predictions didn't come to pass in Gaza that there's no need for concern about something worse in Judea and Samaria?
I'm not worried abut something worse, because if I start to worry about the capacity of the state to carry out the decisions of its lawmakers, that's the end of the line. There's no longer any social cohesion when part of society follows the law and part doesn't.
But you were asking me about the international community. Last time, they did not believe we were capable of doing this. Now we have a certain degree of credibility. The US and the international community know now that we are serious about our decisions to separate the two peoples.
Whether the border runs one meter this way or two meters that way? Anyone concentrating on these specifics doesn't really want an overall solution. Anyone getting down to those details isn't really looking at the big picture. We took the big decision - that the way to solve the situation is to separate the two peoples, to end the conflict and ensure that neither people threatens the other or intervenes with the other.
Today that sounds obvious, but I, Roni Bar-On, sitting opposite you, believe - and will believe to my dying day - that the whole land of Israel is mine. I'm prepared to relinquish Nablus, Hebron and Jenin in order to achieve a Jewish majority in the part that remains mine, in order not to live with the dilemma of wanting everything and ending up with nothing.