Analysis: Eli Yishai vs. the world

The minister is alone on the battlefield.

foreign workers' kids 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
foreign workers' kids 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Interior Minister Eli Yishai may be called many things, but “inconsistent” is not one of them. In the face of a tsunami of public disdain and criticism, the Shas chairman has stuck firmly to his guns and remained adamant in his expressed desire that no illegal workers be allowed to remain in Israel, even if they have children who were born here.
Even after the government provided him with a ladder with which to descend from his grandstanding peak, in the form of a cabinet decision establishing criteria for allowing the children to stay – criteria that, in fact, would enable most of the children to stay – Yishai has continued to defend his position. He has used every available platform and stated time after time that if it were up to him, none of the children would be allowed to remain.
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The media gobbles it up because Yishai’s arguments are so shockingly insensitive and politically incorrect that he never fails to produce a headline.
His repeated efforts to raise the stakes of the decision, claiming that allowing the children and their families to remain would endanger the Jewish character of Israel, are alarmist and over the top; talk show hosts have been clambering to have him make these statements on-air.
When confronted on the things he says – such as his comment a few months ago that migrants import diseases – Yishai either denies he said them or goes on the offensive, accusing the media of conspiring against him.
His confrontations have left him alone in the battlefield.
Even those who side with him are content to let him do the talking and remain silent in the background to ride out the storm.
It seems that Yishai likes it that way. On Sunday, the interior minister called up Army Radio to respond to an earlier broadcast, saying he had instructed all the ministers and MKs from his party to remain silent on the issue of the foreign workers. He said he feared they might veer off-message or say something uncalculated.
The big question is, why does Yishai continue to say things that he knows upset so many people? Is he so insensitive to the foreign workers’ situation that he doesn’t realize that what he says is hurtful? It’s doubtful. He himself has said he is more sensitive to the children’s needs than anyone else, and as a person who grew up in a poor household with nine siblings, it stands to reason that he knows the importance of sympathy and compassion.
Is he expecting to gain political support by taking the hard line? That may be partially the case. There are people – especially those living in places that have long been neglected by the government, such as Gaza evacuees and residents of Tel Aviv’s poor neighborhoods – who support his stance and feel the foreign workers are receiving a disproportionate amount of support from the media and the public. However, his line goes against the traditional platform of Shas, of representing the poor and downtrodden. People who see him attacking the weak now might not trust him to come to their aid in the future.
Does he actually believe that the foreign workers pose a threat to the Jewish nature of Israel? If he does, he has only himself and his party to blame.
For years, Shas has been the main facilitator enabling foreign workers to enter Israel by issuing permits for caregivers and other sectors.
Yishai is also fond of referring to the threat posed to the nation’s demographics by the massive influx of African migrants through the southern border, and he has said that allowing the foreign workers to stay would establish a precedent for the children of migrants. This argument is a red herring. As Yishai knows full well, one of the criteria for allowing the foreign workers’ children to remain is that their parents entered Israel with a legal permit. The African migrants – or infiltrators, as Yishai calls them – jumped the border illegally, and as a result do not meet the government’s criteria.
Yishai obviously cares nothing about what the act of deporting the children might do to Israel’s image abroad. If anything, he fears that by easing the criteria, Israel will appear too weak and susceptible to pressure. However, he also seems to care nothing about what people within Israel think of him, and has gone out of his way to alienate himself. In his blanket attack on his critics, he has called all those who ask that the children be allowed to stay – including Holocaust survivors, international human rights organizations and cabinet members – bold-faced hypocrites.
While it may be easiest to label Yishai as a xenophobic extremist, such a conclusion is too simplistic. It may not be immediately clear why Yishai is putting himself out there in such an extreme way, but it’s worth noting that while Yishai is attracting all the fire, there are others who are enjoying the shelter behind him.
Yishai has said that the foreign workers are using the children as a shield to protect themselves from deportation.
Is he himself a shield protecting the rest of the government from criticism over its decision?