RABBI Yitzhak Peretz's bearded face was wreathed in smiles of welcome as he moved among crowds of Russian immigrants in the arrival hall here last week. But the forecast the Israeli minister of immigrant absorption gave the journalists who trailed him was grim. ``If the wave of aliyah [immigration] continues at this pace, the only solution will be to put up tents,'' he warned.
Never since the state of Israel was founded 42 years ago, proclaiming itself a home for all Jews worldwide, has the country faced such a tidal wave of immigration.
This year the government is planning for 400,000 new immigrants, double the figure for 1990 which itself was a record. And 1992 is expected to bring the total to more than 1 million. The rate of expansion is the equivalent of adding 31.5 million new citizens to the United States over a three-year period.
So far, almost miraculously officials say, all the new immigrants have found a roof over their heads, staying with relatives or friends, crowding together and sleeping on floors, renting scarce apartments if they can find them.
``You don't see them on the street,'' says Foreign Ministry spokesman Yossi Amihud. ``This is a success story and we are proud of it.''
At the ministries of Housing and Absorption and at the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental body that is bringing Soviet Jews to Israel, the relief that so far everyone has found at least temporary shelter is matched by fears for the future. Tough questions about providing housing and jobs are still to be answered.
They are questions that Leonid Ghin, a 21-year-old Soviet medical student from Baku, is putting off for the time being. As he sat in line for his papers and survival money, looking weary and wan after his three week journey, he said that he, his mother, and his two great aunts would be going to stay with a relative.
``My mother's second cousin, he has been a new immigrant since October. I think we will live in his house for three or four days, maybe one week. Then I want to rent an apartment.''
That may not be so easy, warns Simcha Dinitz, chairman of the Jewish Agency. Of the 45,000 houses the government had planned to start building this fiscal year, only 27,000 are underway, he said last week. None of the 15,000 prefabs budgeted for have been put up and of 15,000 trailers that the Housing Ministry promised to install, only 950 have been set up.
With housing considered the most immediate problem, Housing Minister Ariel Sharon matched Mr. Peretz's plan for tent cities with his own proposal last week to put trailers on house roofs. Yet, the ``principal problem is jobs,'' according to Peretz.
``We need to find 250,000 jobs for the 400,000 people who will arrive .... [in 1991] and for those already here,'' he says. ``The demand is much greater than the state can meet.''
Mr. Dinitz is optimistic that a massive drive to build new homes will also create many of the needed jobs. ``Construction itself is the first and main remedy,'' he argues, since it will offer employment not only to bricklayers but to electricians, engineers, architects, and designers too.
Peretz, however, is looking to Jews in the Diaspora for a longer term solution.
``The first thing we should do is turn to wealthy Jews in the US and Europe, and ask them to bring their factories to Israel,'' he suggests. ``Some Jews are setting up factories in Russia: we should tell them that if they want to help us to create jobs they should bring them here.''
Meanwhile, the government is seeking more immediate ways of bearing the cost of absorption - estimated by the Bank of Israel at a staggering $35 billion during the next three years. The Jewish Agency is raising money from Jews internationally - hoping for $1.9 billion - and this year's budget will force the average Israeli's living standard down by 25 percent, Dinitz estimates.
Back at Ben Gurion, Leonid says he knows life here is not going to be easy. But for the time being, he is happy enough to be out of the troubled Soviet Union.
``My English is little, my Hebrew the most little,'' he apologizes. ``But I am a Jew and my place is in Israel.''