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MKs launch caucus to aid immigration from the West

March 12, 2008. Haaretz: Daphna Berman
A Knesset caucus to promote western aliyah was formed Tuesday, amid warnings that the unsolved ulpan dispute could leave new immigrants without free Hebrew instruction beginning September 1, a situation that is expected to negatively affect immigration rates.

The caucus, headed by MK Gilad Erdan (Likud) and MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima), is aiming to reduce bureaucratic barriers surrounding aliyah, as well as further legislation - including sizable tax breaks - to encourage western immigration. Licensing difficulties that face a number of immigrants as they try to establish themselves professionally here, as well as the economic difficulties involved in relocating, are also on the caucus agenda. "One of the issues we're looking into is providing tax benefits for immigrants to encourage aliyah," Erdan told Haaretz Tuesday at the caucus launch.

"If a lawyer comes to Israel and his salary is cut in half, one possibility is that in his first two years here, he will be exempt from income tax. Usually, the finance minister isn't willing to talk about these issues, but if enough Knesset members get involved, we can put this on the agenda. Two years of exemption from income tax can be the difference in whether someone decides to make aliyah or not." Government officials, however, warned that with the looming ulpan crisis, western aliyah remains in danger - despite positive intentions aimed at assisting immigrants. In December, the Education Ministry announced it was handing over the responsibility for the ulpan system to the Absorption Ministry, a decision the Education Ministry said was the result of painful budget cuts.

The two offices set up an inter-ministerial committee to examine the issue, but little progress has been made, officials say. "As of today, come September 1, a new immigrant will not get even one minute of ulpan study (as part of their absorption basket)," Erez Halfon, director general of the Absorption Ministry said at Tuesday's launch. Halfon said that the Absorption Ministry is working hard to find a solution to the problem, but added that at this stage, "there is reason for worry." About a dozen MKs, representing most of the Knesset factions, are expected to be active in the caucus, officials said. Tuesday's launch brought together ministry representatives, as well as officials from the Jewish Agency, Nefesh B'Nefesh, and AMI, the French aliyah organization. Immigrant groups like the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) and Telfed, the South African Zionist Federation, were also present.

The caucus, which is now hoping to become a clearing house of sorts, is expected to convene again next month.

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