Opposition leaders lambaste ‘cowardly’ Netanyahu after U-turn on migrant deal

After he suspended new resettlement agreement for African asylum seekers that would have given 16,250 temporary residency, lawmakers accuse PM of caving to right-wing pressure

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), Interior Affairs Minister Aryeh Deri (L), and National Security Council Chairman Meir Ben Shabat (R), at a press conference announcing the new agreement for handling asylum seekers and illegal African migrants in Israel, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on April 2, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), Interior Affairs Minister Aryeh Deri (L), and National Security Council Chairman Meir Ben Shabat (R), at a press conference announcing the new agreement for handling asylum seekers and illegal African migrants in Israel, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on April 2, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Politicians from the opposition on Monday evening blasted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his abrupt suspension of a resettlement deal for African migrants that had been inked with the UN refugee agency earlier in the day, branding him a “coward” who caved to right-wing pressure.

In a dramatic about-face, 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 agreement. “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 the deal.

“This is a sad, embarrassing, but mostly troubling evening,” said Labor party leader Avi Gabbay. “We have no reason to assume that on security matters the prime minister’s decision-making ability is any better.”

Head of the Zionist Union Avi Gabbay in Jerusalem, on February 19, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg called Netanyahu a “cowardly” leader who “runs the State of Israel according to his political interests.” Netanyahu “capitulated to the most extreme [voices] on the right,” she charged.

She was echoed by Meretz MK Michal Rozin, who said the prime minister was “a coward, indecisive, [and] cannot deal with criticism from his own camp.”

“Netanyahu almost did the right thing. But it was too much for him,” Rozin added.

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 a new one, quietly negotiated with the UN, that would see thousands sent to Western countries.

African migrants gather during a protest outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on January 26, 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The agreement 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.”

Finance Minister and Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon, a key coalition partner, on Monday evening also protested the UN deal, calling it “insufficient” and saying ministers had not been updated on the negotiations.

“I heard about the prime minister’s decision to withdraw from the government’s plan on removing the infiltrators from Israel for the first time today,” Kahlon said on Twitter. “The proposed deal is insufficient. The number of infiltrators who will receive residency status is high and unacceptable. The government must convene and recalculate.”

Under the suspended agreement, which Netanyahu earlier on Monday 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.

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.

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 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.

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