Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Tuesday that he was canceling a new agreement with the UN refugee agency that would have seen thousands of African migrants given temporary status in Israel — a day after first announcing the plan.
“Every year I make thousands of decisions benefiting the State of Israel and Israeli citizens. Occasionally a decision is reached that has to be reconsidered,” he said at a meeting with anti-migrant activists from south Tel Aviv, where many of the migrants reside.
Netanyahu said that after consulting with activist leaders, as well as with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, “I have decided to cancel the agreement. Despite the mounting legal and international limitations, we will continue to act with determination to exhaust all of the options at our disposal for expelling the infiltrators.”
Netanyahu had suspended the agreement on Monday night, hours after announcing it. As Tuesday’s meeting began, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads the right-wing Jewish Home party, tweeted that a temporary halt was not enough.
“The agreement with the United Nations to absorb the infiltrators is bad for Israel,” Bennett said. “It is not enough to freeze it. I call on the prime minister to cancel it entirely.”
He said that the deal would set a terrible precedent and would cause problems for generations to come. “The government of Israel will never succeed in the future in persuading people that infiltrating into Israel isn’t worth it,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, outside the meeting in Tel Aviv, dozens of activists demonstrated against deportation from Israel. Similar demonstrations took place outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, and outside the home of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon in Haifa.
Earlier in the day, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees spokesperson Adrian Edwards told the Hebrew-language Walla news that he did not think Netanyahu would cancel the deal.
“We believe that the agreement will be a success for both sides,” he said in comments carried in Hebrew. “It will enable the State of Israel to fulfill its obligations under the Refugee Convention, and to save lives. We are in close contact with the ministry and do not believe that the agreement will be canceled.”
On Monday night, hours after announcing it, Netanyahu changed course and said he was suspending the deal. “I hear you, and especially the residents of south Tel Aviv,” Netanyahu said in a (Hebrew) Facebook post amid mounting right-wing criticism of the deal. “For the time being, I am suspending the agreement,” he added, noting that he would meet with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and residents of south Tel Aviv, where many of the migrants reside, before reconsidering it.
Monday afternoon, at a press conference alongside Deri, Netanyahu had praised the plan, saying that it would see some 16,250 African migrants in Israel resettled in “developed” Western countries, while a similar number would be given temporary residency in Israel.
“This agreement will allow for the departure from Israel of 16,250 migrants to developed countries like Canada or Germany or Italy,” Netanyahu declared, without elaborating. Other reports said the United States and Sweden would take in some of the number.
Netanyahu’s televised address followed a government announcement that it had scrapped an earlier controversial plan to deport the migrants and replaced it with the new one, quietly negotiated with the UN, that would see thousands sent to Western countries.
Netanyahu said an earlier plan to deport migrants to Rwanda and Uganda was no longer feasible. He stressed that “legal constraints as well as political difficulties on the part of [Uganda and Rwanda]” led to the cancellation of previous deportation policies.
Under the agreement, which Netanyahu called “the best possible,” the asylum seekers who remain in Israel would be dispersed in areas across the country outside of south Tel Aviv, he said. Netanyahu vowed to prioritize rehabilitating the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, alongside implementing the international agreement.
In a Facebook video following up on his press statement, Netanyahu said that the migrants who would be allowed to stay in the country would be removed from Tel Aviv and sent to kibbutzim, agricultural villages, and other communities.
UNHCR confirmed the agreement in a statement, saying, “A joint working group will be set up with a series of objectives and a timetable to implement solutions for some 39,000 people over five years.”
“Under the agreement, UNHCR, with the support of receiving counties, will work to facilitate the departure to third countries to be determined of some 16,000 Eritreans and Sudanese under various programs, including sponsorship, resettlement, family reunion and labor migration schemes, while others will be receiving a suitable legal status in Israel,” the statement said.
The earlier deportation policy, which offered each migrant $3,500 and a plane ticket, had been condemned by Israeli activists and the United Nations as chaotic, poorly executed, and unsafe. Asylum seekers previously deported to Uganda and Rwanda have told The Times of Israel they faced serious danger and even imprisonment after arriving in Africa without proper documents.
The Supreme Court froze the deportations in mid-March in response to a petition.
After the new agreement with the UN was announced on Monday, a leading south Tel Aviv campaigner who had campaigned for the deportation of all the migrants rejected the plan and said her struggle would continue.
“The agreement is a disgrace to Israel and a direct result of the total failure of government policies,” Sheffi Paz said. “This proposal was presented to the heads of the campaign as a fait accompli and was presented as a ‘victory’ along with the expectation that we will give it our approval. The residents of south Tel Aviv will continue their campaign.”
The agreement also came under fire from several senior members of Netanyahu’s Likud party, while Bennett, the Jewish Home party leader, warned that it would “turn Israel into a paradise for infiltrators.”
The Prime Minister’s Office, in its statement announcing the deal, had said that most of the migrants who would stay under the agreement would have been eligible to remain in Israel even without it.