In a dramatic about-face, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday evening that he was freezing a new agreement with the UN refugee agency that would have seen thousands of African migrants given temporary status in Israel — mere hours after announcing the plan.
“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.
It was his third statement on the issue in a matter of hours.
In the 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.
“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 the 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 Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett 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.