JERUSALEM, JULY 29 -- As protest encampments of the poor and homeless fester around the country and the parliament debates steep price increases for basic goods, Israel's euphoria over the arrival of thousands of Soviet immigrants has acquired a tinge of anxiety.
For most of the last year, political leaders and many other Israelis have been elated as immigration has risen from a few hundred to more than 10,000 a month, reviving the Zionist dream of Israel as a haven for the world's Jews. In the last week, however, the costs of such a massive influx have begun to pinch Israeli citizens, while the problems of housing the Soviets have all but panicked their politicians.
After weeks of procrastination, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir unveiled a government plan last week for $250 million in budget cuts to help pay for transporting and housing the 150,000 Soviet immigrants now expected to arrive in Israel this year. For Israeli consumers, the cuts have an immediate impact: price increases of up to 33 percent in basic commodities like bread, chicken and milk, which are subsidized by the government, as well as cuts in welfare allowances for families with children.
The proposed cutbacks prompted an uproar in Israel's parliament, which is threatening to veto the plan this week if the blow to poor Israelis is not softened. Defense Minister Moshe Arens, who is facing a cut of $36 million in the armed forces budget, also has launched a campaign to stop the measure, arguing that it may be harmful to Israel's security.
At the same time, Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, who heads the effort to absorb the new immigrants, has said that the money the government is straining to raise is nowhere near enough. Today, he presented a new plan to the cabinet for an additional $1.5 billion in spending, which he contends is the minimum needed to provide temporary housing for the immigrants as well as for Israelis already forced out of their homes.
This vast new claim has prompted Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai to pronounce a harsh verdict: Israel, he said, simply cannot afford to provide for all the immigrants and homeless. If Soviets continue to pour into the country, he suggested, they may have to live in army camps or tent cities, much as immigrants to the Jewish state did in the early years after its founding in 1948. "Living in tents doesn't hurt anyone," Modai said.
Modai's strategy seems likely to inflame the thousands of Israelis already living in about 30 tent cities around the country. Mostly young, poor families who have suffered from overcrowded housing and a tight job market for years, these "homeless" Israelis have steadily stepped up their protests over the past two weeks, from establishing encampments and signing petitions to launching hunger strikes and barricading streets.
The government appears trapped between the growing pressure of the protests and its severe financial bind. With half of this year's expected influx of Soviets still to come -- and hundreds of thousands more expected in the next several years -- the dimensions of the country's potential upheaval are beginning to dawn on many Israelis.
"We are seeing a demonstration of the enormousness of this event for Israel and the Jewish people," said David Clayman, who heads the Israel office of the American Jewish Congress. "The immigration is coming in such enormous numbers now that no one could have thought it out or planned in advance. And the country is now facing a crucial problem: whether it can absorb this huge mass, or whether it will absorb Israel."
The most vivid demonstration of the creeping anxiety among Israel's leadership has been the emergence of proposals to curtail the number of Soviets eligible to immigrate under the country's Law of Return.
Michael Kleiner, a member of Shamir's Likud Party who heads the parliamentary committee on immigration, has favored legislation that would eliminate the Law of Return's "grandfather clause," which gives the automatic right of citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent. Citing estimates that between 5 million and 12 million Soviets could potentially claim Israeli citizenship, Kleiner argues that Israel may be inundated with refugees who have no interest in Judaism or the Jewish state and merely want a way out of the Soviet Union.
Kleiner's argument has been backed by leaders of Israel's ultra-Orthodox religious community, including the interior and absorption ministers, who fear a massive influx of new, secularized citizens. Interior Minister Arie Deri contends that more than 30 percent of the Soviets now arriving in Israel are not Jewish, but are entering by virtue of a spouse or ancestor.
These arguments have prompted strong responses from advocates of Soviet Jewry and from more liberal rabbis, who say Israel cannot morally refuse those who qualify under the present law.
"If there are people who share the fate of Jews, who identify with Jewish society, we have to let them in," said David Hartman, a liberal rabbi and philosopher. "The challenge is not to investigate their grandfather, but to work out what we do with them once they are here, how we integrate them into Jewish society."
The most likely outcome of the growing financial and social crunch, Hartman and other observers said, is that Israel will not restrict the flow of Soviet Jews but will gradually cut back on the special privileges they have enjoyed. Eager to please the new immigrants, the government has given the typical arriving family $11,000 in grants and subsidies for its first year, an income that exceeds that of many Israelis.
Shamir's new budget proposal suggests a $500 cut in the subsidy, and Modai's argument that the government give up trying to provide standard housing for immigrants points to an end to such incentives.
"The government is beginning to realize that it simply cannot afford, either politically or financially, to give the immigrants such special treatment," one senior official said. "Inevitably the Soviets are going to have to start playing the game here and competing for limited resources along with everyone else."