Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday slammed criticism of the government’s plan to deport African migrants and asylum seekers as a “campaign of lies,” calling on his Likud colleagues to “help prevent this slander against Israel.”
Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority on Sunday began serving deportation notices to Eritrean and Sudanese migrants and asylum seekers, telling them that they would be sent to an unnamed African country that enjoys a relatively “stable government.”
Under the plan, any of the 40,000 or so migrants who voluntarily leave Israel by the end of March will receive $3,500 and a plane ticket to the unnamed country. On April 1, the immigration authority plans to begin imprisoning or forcibly expelling those who have not yet left.
Speaking at his weekly Likud faction meeting, Netanyahu defended the move, rejecting the suggestion made by refugee advocates that it could be illegal under international law.
“International law places obligations on countries and it also gives them rights. There is an obligation to accept refugees, and we accept refugees,” he said, “but international law also gives the right to a country to remove from its borders illegal migrants. We have no obligation to allow illegal labor migrants who are not refugees to remain here.”
Critics of the plan note that of some 15,000 African refugee status requests, only 11 have been approved, citing that statistic as evidence that Israel is being disingenuous and not living up to international standards.
In recent weeks, groups of Israeli pilots, doctors, writers, former ambassadors and Holocaust survivors have appealed to Netanyahu to halt the deportation plan, warning it was unethical and would cause grave damage to Israel’s self-described image as a light unto the nations.
Even Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, has weighed in. While rejecting any comparisons between the plight of the migrants and the victims of the Holocaust, it said the issue nonetheless is a “national and international challenge that requires empathy, compassion and mercy.”
The backlash appears to have struck a raw nerve, with Netanyahu accusing some critics of cynically invoking comparisons to the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany.
“This is a campaign of lies. It is based on empty slogans and on comparisons that have no place in the public discourse in Israel because there is no truth to them,” Netanyahu said.
Telling Likud MKs that the Prime Minister’s Office had prepared a fact sheet for them with information to counter the criticism, Netanyahu asked that his party members “help to prevent the slander being spread against Israel with the proper defense. And the proper defense is the truth.”
On Sunday Netanyahu accused Jewish billionaire George Soros of funding a widespread campaign against the move, echoing a public campaign that was started last year by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who accused the 87-year-old of orchestrating migration into Europe since the refugee crisis began in 2015 and branded him “a public enemy.”
“George Soros is also funding the protests,” Netanyahu told his ministers, according to leaks from the meeting carried by Channel 10 and Haaretz.
Soros, who in recent years has backed groups critical of Israeli government policy, has become a bugbear for the pro-Israel right. Anti-Semites also regularly attack Soros, a Holocaust survivor, whom they see as part of a Jewish conspiracy to manipulate foreign markets and governments.
Soros swiftly rejected Netanyahu’s claims, saying he had nothing to do with the campaign.
“Contrary to the false claim by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, George Soros is not funding any protests against Israel’s plan to deport thousands of African asylum seekers,” a Soros spokesperson told Israeli media.
“However, Mr. Soros adamantly believes that, in accordance with the 1951 Refugee Convention and international law, it is wrong to forcibly send asylum seekers back to countries where they might be persecuted or killed,” the spokesperson added.
Speaking at his own Zionist Union faction meeting, opposition leader Isaac Herzog said on Monday that Netanyahu was using Soros as a smokescreen for the problematic plan.
“It isn’t George Soros, Bibi,” Herzog said. “It is the natural sense of justice that beats in the hearts of many Israelis who believe in human dignity.”
Herzog said he had held consultations with numerous experts on the issue, including Israeli researchers who recently visited Uganda and Rwanda — the two countries where Israel is said to be sending the migrants, most of whom are from Eritrea and Sudan — “and their conclusion was that these states do not have sufficient infrastructure to uphold the state commitments to the High Court of Justice.”
Marissa Newman contributed to this report.