Netanyahu announces final ‘nullification’ of migrant deal

After freezing a resettlement agreement for African migrants just hours after he announced it, the prime minister later declared that plan had been cancelled.

By: World Israel News

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Tuesday afternoon his decision to completely cancel a deal announced a day earlier with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees aimed at resolving the African migrant crisis and replacing the government’s mass deportation plan.

Speaking ahead of a meeting with disgruntled south Tel Aviv activists Netanyahu said, “I have listened attentively to the statements about the agreement. As a result, and after reevaluating the advantages and disadvantages, I have decided to nullify the agreement.”

Last night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the “suspension” of the agreement that he announced just hours earlier, to allow about half of the countries estimated 38,000 African asylum seekers to remain in Israel with the rest going to Western democracies. The flip-flop has resulted in a rash of criticism from the left and right.

The surprise agreement was signed with the UN refugee agency on Monday afternoon. Netanyahu’s announcement of the deal led to sharp rebukes from cabinet ministers and south Tel Aviv residents. In a dramatic about-face hours later, Netanyahu bowed to the pressure and announced that he was freezing the new agreement with the UN.

Surprised cabinet partners blasted the UN deal and complained that they had been kept in the dark. Jewish Home party leader and Education Minister Naftali Bennet charged that the plan would “turn Israel into a paradise for infiltrators.” Kulanu leader and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon complained that he “heard about the prime minister’s decision to withdraw from the government’s plan on removing the infiltrators for the first time on the same day. Kahlon said, “The proposed deal is insufficient. The number of infiltrators who will receive residency status is high and unacceptable. The government must convene and recalculate.”

As criticism began to mount, including from south Tel Aviv activists who had been campaigning for mass deportation, Netanyahu promised that the remaining migrants would be dispersed in areas across the country including to kibbutzim and other agricultural communities. He also vowed to rehabilitate the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv where most of the migrants currently reside. As the pressure mounted, Netanyahu’s support for the UN agreement withered away.

In a Facebook post on Monday evening Netanyahu explained, “I hear you, and especially the residents of south Tel Aviv. For the time being, I am suspending the agreement.” Netanyahu added that he would first meet with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and residents of south Tel Aviv, where many of the migrants reside, before reconsidering future steps.

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

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Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg called Netanyahu a “cowardly” leader who runs the State of Israel according to his political interests. Tonight he capitulated to the most extreme voices on the right.” Meretz MK Michal Rozin, 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.”

The drama began on Monday afternoon when Netanyahu and Deri held a televised news conference at which Netanyahu announced that the government had scrapped an earlier plan to deport the migrants, and was replacing it with a new plan that had been quietly negotiated with the UN. Netanyahu praised the new plan as “the best possible agreement” and explained that it would see about 16,250 of the migrants sent to Western countries while a similar number would be given temporary residency.

The earlier deportation policy offered each migrant $3,500 and a plane ticket to Rwanda or Uganda. If they did not agree to leave, they would face prison. The plan had been condemned by Israeli activists and the United Nations. Rwanda announced that it was not party to the agreement, and in mid-March, the Supreme Court froze the deportations in response to a petition.

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The Africans, nearly all from dictatorial Eritrea and war-torn Sudan, say they fled for their lives and faced renewed danger if they return home. Israel has said it considers the vast majority of the 35,000-40,000 migrants to be job seekers and has said it has no legal obligation to keep them.

The illegal migrants started moving toward Israel in 2005, after neighboring Egypt violently quashed a refugee demonstration and word spread of safety and job opportunities in Israel. Tens of thousands crossed the porous desert border before Israel completed a barrier in 2012 that stopped the influx. But Israel struggled with what to do with those already in the country, alternating between plans to deport them and offering them jobs in hotels and local municipalities.

The poorer neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv have become home to a huge number of Africans, and the residents there have complained and demonstrated against their presence due to the subsequent higher rates of violence that have left them feeling unsafe and trapped. South Tel Aviv, where ethnic food shops and phone card stalls line the streets, has become known as “Little Africa,” sparking tension with the working-class Jewish residents who have been putting pressure on the government to find a solution.