The reason that Netanyahu’s government authorized the immigration to Israel of 400 Ethiopians might have been political, but there are no guarantees it will encourage Israeli Ethiopians to vote for the Likud in the March elections.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes that there is a chance of forming a narrow right-wing government after the election — i.e., one that would depend on at least 61 mandates — and he is thus chasing after every possible vote. As part of this sprint for votes, Netanyahu pushed Feb. 9 for a government decision on bringing to Israel 400 new immigrants from Ethiopia who have first-degree relations in Israel. He is doing so while ignoring strong opposition from many elements within the Ethiopian community in Israel who claim that those potential immigrants are not Jewish and not interested in being Jewish, but are using an opportunity to leave Ethiopia, whose economic situation is dire. Some have even told Al-Monitor that bringing in these Christian Ethiopians will hurt the Likud party and decrease support for it among Jewish Israeli Ethiopians.
Netanyahu promoted this decision even against the opposition of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and the legal adviser to the prime minister’s office, Shlomit Barnea Farago, who both believe that there is a legal impediment to approving this decision. An opinion presented to the ministers before the Feb. 9 debate argued that the decision would constitute a benefit to a voting public that could be seen as motivated by political considerations. The opinion sharply criticizes the lack of comprehensive groundwork and verified data on the number of people at transit camps in Ethiopia who seek to emigrate to Israel. It further stated that “no reason has been given that points to concrete urgency to make the decision less than a month before the election date. Likewise, this does not relate to continuity in implementing government policy but rather to a change in policy. There is concern that making this decision will restrict the judgement of a new government. Therefore, there is concern that accepting the suggestion at this time would constitute a benefit to a certain electoral sector, which could be seen as motivated by election campaign considerations.”
Ultra-Orthodox Interior Minister Aryeh Deri could have also become an opponent of the decision, following the opposition of several rabbis to bringing non-Jews to Israel. Eventually, Deri supported the proposal, apparently toeing the line with Netanyahu’s demands in order to help him in the election campaign.
Netanyahu boasted at the government meeting that he is responsible for bringing thousands of immigrants from Ethiopia in his decade in office, and promised that budgets would be allocated to absorb and integrate the new immigrants and to fight racism toward the Ethiopian community. The recent Cabinet decision relies on government decisions from 2016 and 2018, according to which Ethiopian citizens should be admitted as immigrants if they have first-degree relations in Israel, most of whom are from the Falash Mura — descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity in the 19th century, who are now living in transit camps in Gondar and Addis Ababa. Their immigration in the past and their immigration now falls under the provisions of the Law of Entry to Israel and not the Law of Return, which applies only to Jews or descendants of Jews. Government decisions have determined that the conditions for bringing in this group require an official request from a first-degree relative living in Israel, being on a list of those waiting at transit camps, consent to undergo a conversion process, and more.