By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

Panic at the top?

 


The numbers are large, and projections are that the stream of refugees from the east and south will remain at flood stage. Some are predicting another historic migration, such as that which brought tribes from Asia to Europe long ago, and the great movements after World War II.

Projections range to over a million this year, from east across Turkey and from Africa across the Mediterranean. 

Leaders are doing what they know best, i.e., talking. Also typical for a situation of crisis is that each is speaking differently, changing details from time to time, and saying that nominal partners aren’t doing their part. Each with her or his own plan for her or his own country, urging unity of action, and demanding that others do what the talker sees as their part.

There is little certainty about the near future and none about anything more distant.

We can argue if it is panic at the top of governments, or politics at a higher fever than usual.

Early on, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the most forthcoming. Germany would be open and welcoming. Pundits were predicting the Nobel Peace Prize, perhaps to the worry of John Kerry, wondering why else would he have invested so much in that Iran deal.


A day or so later, Ms Merkel was speaking differently. Her country people were urging caution. Other countries would have to do their part.  Germans said that the rich and under-populated countries of the Middle East ought to be taking a large share of the refugees.

Stories citing German officials have said that the country is willing to take 800,000 per year, or perhaps only 500,000. 

The president of the European Union proposed that all of Europe should accept 160,000, distributed among the member countries by quotas not specified. Three months ago, European leaders could not agree on a proposal to spread 40,000 migrants among their countries. 

British Prime Minister David Cameron put his own twist on the issue. Britain would accept 20,000 Syrians over the course of five years, but not from the flood of people coming on their own, with the help of people smugglers. Britain would take the neediest from the refugee camps alongside Syria, with an emphasis on children who had lost their parents. Sounds like he was remembering the good press from kindertransport.

The French President offered 24,000 places. French public opinion was signaling none, thank you.

Both the French and the British indicated they would be joining air attacks on somebody in Syria. Let’s hope they choose their targets wisely from among perhaps 30 militias, organizations, groups, and/or gangs fighting there.

Among the latest outbursts from the Palestinian leadership are demands to allow Palestinians from Syria to enter the West Bank. That is at least partly a swipe at Israel, hinting about the right of return. Coming along with the threats of Mahmoud Abbas to resign, to disband the Palestinian National Authority, and to end the Oslo Accords, we can suspect that the Palestinians aren’t all that anxious about providing for thousands of their cousins, beyond the use of the idea for another bit of airtime.


Who knows? Being sure that those claiming leadership of the Palestinians are serious about anything is one of the things Israelis--and perhaps all others--have not mastered.

The poorer countries of eastern Europe are least enthusiastic about the refugees, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. There were riots in Greece, Hungary’s president at one point provided buses to move last weekend’s intake on to Austria, then said that he would close the borders to the continued flow. Slovakia said that it would accept 200, but only Christians. The Czech Republic and Bulgaria have also indicated that they would only take Christians.

An Arab MK was the first Israeli to speak out in favor of opening the borders to Syrians. One guesses that he wanted a precedent for another flow of Palestinians. Yitzhak Herzog, the head of the Labor Party, was as sonorous as he can be, saying that the Jewish State must remember history and help the unfortunate. When Prime Minister Netanyahu responded with measured cool (we feel for them but they are someone else’s problem), Herzog responded that Netanyahu had forgotten what it was to be a Jew.


Sources in the White House expressed worry, said they were exploring options for a greater American role, and cited the money the US was providing for humanitarian aid.

Latest word is that the Americans are willing to accept 1,500. A British politician has said that 65,000 would be a fair number for the Americans, given the size and resources of the US, as well as their contribution to chaos in Iraq and failure to act more decisively in Syria.

Donald Trump wants to send illegals back to Latin America, along with their U.S. citizen children, and to change the Constitution’s linkage of birth with citizenship. 

It seems fair to ask about a few countries that have done as much as any to cause the problems of the refugees, but are not among those offering to take any.

No one seems to know how much, but a fair amount of the resources being spent on the fighting in Iraq and Syria comes from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf Emirates. Iran may be helping with the passage of Afghans westward. 

Turkey has been playing all sides, seemingly intent on minimizing an impact on its own ethnic problems, and wary of borders with both Syria and Iraq. It is not in the resource league of Iran, Saudi Arabia, or the Emirates, and is already strained by something approaching two million refugees, mostly Syrians, but with substantial numbers of Iraqis and Afghans. It has opened itself as the major route of fighters going to Syria or Iraq, and for refugees moving west toward Greece and onward.

Russia is a major supplier and supporter of Bashar al Assad. It also has lots of empty space, and some experience in dealing with restive Muslims.

What to do? It seems best for Israelis to sit and watch. Selfish? Perhaps. Wise? Most likely.

This is already one of the most crowded of countries, especially when the desert south is left out of calculations. Roads are clogged. Most new housing is high rise, where the view is limited to the high rise next door. 

Refugees from fighting in the Middle East are coming from countries that have been preaching death to Israel since 1948.

Do we want to provide reason for another campaign in favor of aged Palestinian refugees from 1948, along with their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, whose aspirations to end the Israeli phenomenon have been kept alive by UNRWA along with its schools and food?

Need we supply answers to those questions?

Meantime, we can wish one another Shana tova.

Ira Sharkansky is a professor (Emeritus) of the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

 

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