- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2003

JERUSALEM (AP) — Immigration to Israel has fallen sharply this year, a Cabinet minister said yesterday, as the government took a step to try to reverse the trend by reinstating housing grants for new arrivals.

Only 7,692 immigrants came to Israel during the first five months of the year — putting it on the path for a year long total far below the 35,168 who came last year — according to figures from the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption.

Immigration is in a “tailspin,” said the minister, Tzipi Livni. “It’s impossible to remain indifferent to what’s going on.” She said her ministry needed to examine the attitudes of potential immigrants and find ways to make Israel more attractive to them.

A main factor depressing immigration figures is the nearly three years of Palestinian-Israeli violence. Many potential immigrants have had second thoughts because of the frequent images of terror attacks inside Israel, and the unrest has contributed to a serious economic recession and high unemployment.

Although Palestinian officials said yesterday that Hamas and other militant groups were on the verge of agreeing to halt attacks on Israelis, Israel warned that it may not accept what it considers a tactical cease-fire meant to give the militias time to regroup for more violence.

A U.S.-backed “road map” to Palestinian statehood by 2005 has been hung up over the two sides’ inability to end the fighting.

In 2001, there were 44,633 new arrivals in Israel. During the peak years of 1990 and 1991, almost 377,000 immigrants came to Israel, most from the former Soviet Union.

“I fully believe that immigration will define the strength of the state of Israel. We have to find out the reasons for what’s happening and focus our resources to bring in more immigrants,” the minister said.

Jewish immigration to Israel is the cornerstone of Zionism, the Jewish national movement. About half the people living in Israel today were born abroad.

Mike Rosenberg, director general of the Immigration and Absorption Department at the Jewish Agency for Israel, the body responsible for bringing Jews to Israel, said that besides the country’s difficult economic and security situations, administrative measures, such as reducing housing grants, have cut into immigration.

Yesterday, Israeli officials reinstated housing grants for new immigrants that had been cut, the prime minister’s office said.

The government also set up a task force to “study the needs of immigrants and propose an optimum package of benefits,” the statement said.

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