Migrants and zigzags: 7 things to know for April 3
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Migrants and zigzags: 7 things to know for April 3

A blow-by-blow recap of the dizzying twists and turns the past 24 hours have seen in the saga of Israel’s attempt to formulate a policy on its African migrant population

Adiv Sterman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

African asylum seekers and Israeli activists protest outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, against their deportation, on April 3, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
African asylum seekers and Israeli activists protest outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, against their deportation, on April 3, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

1. It’s often hard to keep up with the news in this small and exciting region of the Middle East, but rarely have Israelis encountered such tumultuous developments on such a divisive topic as was the case in the past 24 hours. Blink and you might have missed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s flip-flop on a new agreement with the UN refugee agency that would have seen thousands of African migrants given temporary status in Israel — which he canceled a few hours after announcing it.

  • Yesterday afternoon, Netanyahu 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.
  • 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, where they are currently concentrated. Netanyahu vowed to prioritize rehabilitating the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv alongside implementing the international agreement.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri announce a new refugee deal with the UN, hours before suspending it, April 2, 2018 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
  • 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.
  • 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.

2. But immediately, Netanyahu was faced with nearly unprecedented pressure from some of his ministers and many, many followers online, who bombarded him with posts, tweets, and comments denouncing the agreement and, in some cases, attacking him personally.

  • Most vocally opposed to the agreement was Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads the right-wing Jewish Home party. Bennett tweeted 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.
  • Following the barrage of criticism, Netanyahu said late yesterday he would suspend the agreement. He later met with anti-migrant activists from south Tel Aviv, where many of the migrants reside, and finally, on Tuesday, canceled the deal altogether.

3. The word “zigzag” pops up all over today in the Hebrew-language media, with even Israel Hayom — considered to be closely aligned with the prime minister — noting Netanyahu’s flip-floppiness.

  • While the prime minister came under heavy criticism from the right after announcing the agreement, today it is the left that condemns him for canceling it, mere hours after he received very rare praise from those same exact people.
  • Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said Netanyahu’s backtracking underlines his “weakness and hysteria.”
  • Labor party leader Avi Gabbay called out Netanyahu for his “lack of leadership, cowardice, incitement against groups, empty slogans, inability to make decisions, and zero ability to implement.”
  • Meretz’s Tamar Zandberg said “Netanyahu makes his decisions based on political considerations that are calculated and cold.” She also accused him of having “zero policy, and zero thinking about what is right for Israel.”

4. The different terminology used by the prime minister over the past day to describe the migrants and asylum seekers is interesting, and provides insight into how politicians attempt, and sometimes succeed, in manipulating public opinion simply by choosing one word or the other.

  • For starters, the word “infiltrators,” which is in very common use by anti-migrant politicians and activists, is nowhere to be found in yesterday’s official statement on the agreement issued by the Prime Minister’s office. Instead, the word used to describe the migrants is, well, migrants.
  • This morning, however, the migrants are infiltrators on the prime minister’s Facebook page.

5. Also, curiously, during yesterday’s press conference in which Netanyahu praised the deal, he clearly stated that the reason for pursuing the new agreement was because the third country — later identified as Rwanda — which was slated to accept the migrants deported from Israel could “not handle the pressure” of properly executing the task at hand. Hours later, it was “the New Israel Fund” and “the European Union” who “tremendously pressured” Rwanda into not accepting any migrants.

  • For the record, The New Israel Fund denied any involvement in Rwanda’s decision to back out of the deportation deal.
  • The European Union’s mission in Israel also addressed the accusation in a tweet. “Guess it’s just one of those days,” read the Twitter account. “At 20:57 you congratulate Israel & @refugees on their agreement, at 21:46 you like @IsraelMFA announcement on the deal, at 22:50 the PM suspends it and blames, among others, #EU (where #UNHCR hoped to resettle significant number of refugees).”

6. Meanwhile, Rwanda has denied it ever made an agreement with Israel to take in deported asylum seekers.

  • “There was never a deal with Israel, neither in writing, nor verbally,” Rwanda’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Olivier Nduhungirehe told Israel’s Kan public broadcaster news.
  • Netanyahu’s singling out of Rwanda was the first time any Israeli government official named Rwanda as a “third-party country,” confirming widespread reports.

7. The earlier deportation policy, which offered each migrant $3,500 and a plane ticket, had been condemned by Israeli activists and the UN 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.
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