Politicians from the opposition on Tuesday blasted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his cancellation of a resettlement deal for African migrants that had been inked with the UN refugee agency a day earlier, branding him a “coward” who was unfit to lead.
In a dramatic about-face, Netanyahu announced he was canceling a new agreement with the UN refugee agency that would have seen thousands of African migrants resettled in Western nations and thousands more given temporary status in Israel. Netanyahu had frozen the deal on Monday evening, mere hours after 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.
Labor party leader Avi Gabbay posted on Facebook that Netanyahu had exhibited “a lack of leadership, cowardice, evasion of responsibility, incitement against communities, empty slogans, an inability to make decisions and zero ability to perform.”
Gabbay said, “The past 24 hours proved to millions of Israelis from the right and left” that Israel’s problem was its “spineless politicians.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said the only way forward was for Netanyahu to resign.
“The decision to nullify an international agreement that would have made it possible to find a reasonable solution to this issue will complicate things for Israel from a legal, political and humanitarian standpoint,” he wrote on Twitter. “There is only one way to deal with the absurd spectacle we have seen in the past 24 hours – to demand that the lead actor get off the stage immediately.”
Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg said, “It is clearer than ever: Netanyahu makes his decisions based on cold political considerations. Zero policy, zero thought of what is right for Israel.” She said the premier had shown himself to be “a jittery, cowardly, hysterical person with miserable decision making skills.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Jewish Home party praised the prime minister’s decision.
“I congratulate the prime minister on the wise decision to cancel the agreement to absorb the infiltrators,” he tweeted. “Now we must act to remove the illegal infiltrators.”
On Monday afternoon, at a press conference alongside Interior Minister Aryeh 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 a new one, quietly negotiated with the UN, that would see thousands sent to Western countries.
Under the suspended agreement, which Netanyahu earlier on Monday called “the best possible,” the asylum seekers who remained 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.
Netanyahu said an earlier plan to deport migrants to Rwanda was no longer feasible. He stressed that “legal constraints as well as political difficulties on the part of [Rwanda]” led to the cancellation of previous deportation policies.
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 UNHCR confirmed the agreement in a statement Monday, saying it would “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.”
Israeli’s previous 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 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.