Bennett: Migrant deal will turn Israel into ‘paradise for infiltrators’

Education minister blasts agreement as a ‘complete capitulation to false campaign’ against plan to deport asylum seekers

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks with the press ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks with the press ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett lambasted an agreement that would see the UN help resettle in other countries some 16,250 African migrants currently in Israel in return for Israel giving temporary status to the remainder, also some 16,250.

In a series of tweets, Bennett, the education minister, asserted that the deal “will turn Israel into a paradise for infiltrators.”

He further described it as a “complete capitulation to the false campaign spread by the media in recent months” against a controversial plan that would have seen most of the migrants deported to Rwanda or Uganda.

“The original plan that the government agreed on regarding the infiltrators was moral and fair and we should act only according to it,” he said.

Former Likud party member Gideon Sa’ar, who is seen as a possible future challenger to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also criticized the deal. “The agreement to keep most infiltrators in Israel is a grave mistake,” he said. “It shows weakness, renunciation of [Israeli] sovereignty, and encouragement of illegal immigration to Israel.”

According to the agreement, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will work to find homes in Western countries for at least 16,250 of the asylum seekers in Israel, while Israel will agree to give temporary status to the remainder — also estimated at around 16,250. The status of the latter group will be reevaluated after five years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a press conference on Monday that the agreement would see the deportation of the migrants “to developed countries like Canada or Germany or Italy.” Other reports said the United States and Sweden would also take in some of the migrants.

Netanyahu said the earlier plan to deport migrants to Rwanda and Uganda was no longer feasible.

Speaking at a press conference alongside Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Netanyahu said 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 said was “the best possible,” the asylum seekers who remain in Israel will be dispersed in areas across the country outside of south Tel Aviv, where a majority of them currently reside. Netanyahu vowed to prioritize rehabilitating the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, alongside implementing the international agreement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the press in his Jerusalem office on April 2, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / Menahem KAHANA)

He said that his policies over the years, including the construction of a fence along the Egyptian border, had prevented an outcome in which close to a million migrants would inundate Israel and “endanger its Jewish and democratic nature.”

Deri welcomed the deal as well, insisting that the outcome of “months of under-the-radar talks” with the United Nations had resulted in “the best possible outcome” for the Israeli residents of south Tel Aviv.

“It is only thanks to the agreement that we can disperse the migrants throughout the country,” Deri said.

“We saved immense sums of money,” he added, referring to the closing of the Holot Detention Center, which cost Israel nearly NIS 250 million annually. Deri said the funds saved would be used, among other things, for the rehabilitation of south Tel Aviv.

Lawmakers from the left, but also some on the right, welcomed the deal.

Opposition Zionist Union MK Shelly Yachimovich tweeted that the agreement was “a tremendous victory for a citizens’ campaign and the voice of morality and reason against racism and hatred of the stranger. The framework that the government is presenting appears to be fair and moral, both on the international level and out of concern, first of all, for the residents of southern [Tel Aviv] neighborhoods.”

Communication Minister Ayoub Kara of the ruling Likud party tweeted that the deal shows that Netanyahu and his government could be relied upon to deliver on its promises.

“The framework plan for solving the problem of labor migrants in Israel proves again what a good and effective government there is in Israel,” he said. “It is a fair framework, just and moral, that is supported by international organizations, and also takes care to resolve the distress of the residents of south Tel Aviv. What the prime minister promises he keeps.”

Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg speaks to supporters after being elected as the new party head, March 22, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The new head of the left-wing Meretz party, Tamar Zandberg, tweeted that the cancellation of the expulsion was “simply an amazing and inspiring achievement of a determined and just civil and public campaign. Pride.”

After the agreement was announced, 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 Prime Minister’s Office, which announced the new deal earlier Monday in a statement, said most of those who will stay would have remained in Israel in any event.

The new plan, under the auspices of the United Nations, will replace the previous plan, due to go into effect Sunday, which was to expel the migrants to Rwanda and Uganda.

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.

The PMO said that the new plan had been approved by the attorney general and was in keeping with international law and practice.

At the same time the PMO announced a special committee, headed by former Kadima MK Avigdor Yitzhaki, to improve the quality of life in south Tel Aviv, where many of the asylum seekers live.

In addition, as part of the deal, the government will focus on providing occupational guidance, vocational training and other assistance to the migrants to help them integrate into Israel. It will also work to disperse them around the country, so that they will not be concentrated in a single area.

Human rights activists in Israel and major US Jewish organizations had long urged the Israeli government not to go ahead with its plan to force the migrants to choose between jail and deportation.

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