Breakthrough on foreign workers' children, and a reduction in red tape

When Interior Minister Ronnie Bar-On took on the challenge of Israel's citizenry debate, its policies regarding refugees and foreign workers, and cleaning up the cesspool that is the local authorities system 18 months ago, there were high hopes that the former lawyer and rising Kadima politician's savvy and headstrong character would be able to succeed in implementing changes where his predecessors had failed. Now, as he prepares to move portfolios to the equally controversial - and perhaps even more contentious - Finance Ministry, it seems clear that on many issues Bar-On did succeed in taking measured but important steps to cutting down on the ministry's red tape and liberalizing its policies. Of course, heading up "Misrad Hapnim" (known very often by its derogatory Hebrew nickname, "Misrad Al-Hapanim"), is no easy feat, and like any politician who flirts briefly with the serious issues faced by the country's various offices, Bar-On failed to make much headway, either due to impossible barriers or by choosing carefully which battles to fight. What Bar-On will most likely be remembered for was his success in June in finally granting permanent-residency visas to a total of 1,200 children of foreign workers, who up until then had been living in Israel illegally, constantly fearing deportation. Obviously, the proposal was not Bar-On's alone but rather the culmination of a long history and intense debate surrounding the legal status of those children who did not arrive here by choice and had become fully integrated into society. However, where former interior ministers Avraham Poraz (Shinui) and Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor) had failed to even get the proposal approved by the government, Bar-On speedily pushed it through, partially solving a problem that previously had no formal solution. Other, somewhat smaller but no less influential victories garnered by Bar-On included reforming the procedure for elderly relatives of new immigrants from the Former Soviet bloc to be granted visas and allowing non-Jewish children from previous marriages to join their families here, as well as finding a solution for non-Jewish spouses brought here and then abused by their sponsors. Bar-On also cut down the bureaucracy for Orthodox Jewish converts to make aliya, allowing them to bypass the compulsory interview with the Rabbinate to validate their conversion. Outside of the citizenry issues, Bar-On also inherited the discontent and growing corruption in many of the country's local authorities. He stood up to the challenge less with flying colors but with controlled diplomacy, managing to calm Histadrut tempers and coax striking employees back to work within two days by promising to pay the 3,758 unpaid workers in 36 local councils. However, with all these positive moves, Bar-On never quite managed to completely take on the Orthodoxy's control over life-cycle events, tackle the questions of increasing immigration from Ethiopia or find time to formulate a concrete policy on the growing number of non-Jewish refugees flowing into Israel. His attitude towards the Orthodox monopoly seemed more content with keeping the status quo than finding a solution for the country's more than 400,000 people who, because of their lack of religious status, cannot get married under the Israeli marriage laws. And regarding the Falash Mura community, Bar-On told The Jerusalem Post in an interview last year that the number agreed upon by the government of Israel was 10,300. "That's it. Finished," he stated back then, adding that even though the American federations had made it a big issue, Israel could not realistically facilitate bringing them all in at once and that the pace of 300 a month was sufficient. Obviously, Ethiopian rights groups argued that the lengthy time period those Falash Mura must wait before reaching the promised land not only put them in danger over there but also placed an intolerable strain on their families here. Bar-On did not budge. Finally and more immediate, Bar-On tried to weather the storm over Sudanese and other African asylum seekers. But in his recommendations made to the government on the matter earlier this week, what he offered was a very short-term solution to return those not from the Darfur region to Egypt or Kenya. Whether his proposal to the government also included a viable, long-term refugee policy is still unclear, but what is clear is that now that his time as interior minister has run out, this is one of the challenges he failed to step up to. Having said that, most of the advocacy groups bid farewell to Israel's latest Interior Ministry head believing that some important ground was covered, and they are hopeful that his successor will yield even more positive changes.