Behind the Scenes: How Netanyahu's Political Base Killed the Asylum Seeker Deal

Netanyahu's chief of staff and national security adviser supported the agreement with the UN, but the PM quickly bowed to anger from his base

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Oded Balilty/Pool
\ POOL/ REUTERS

Over a single 24-hour period starting Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a surprise announcement about an agreement on asylum seekers, hastily retreated from the deal, and cancelled it entirely under pressure from Likud ministers and right-wing supporters, leaving observers with a case of whiplash and a sense of confusion.

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The officials who pushed the agreement with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees were Netanyahu’s Chief of Staff Yoav Horowitz and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat. As soon as an agreement with Rwanda to accept deportees fell apart, the pair realized they had a very narrow window of opportunity to find an alternative plan. They pulled out of the drawer the UN plan that had been under discussion for two years in various iterations, and worked to improve it.

Netanyahu became convinced they were right: It was the best agreement they possessed since the beginning of Israel's asylum seeker crisis. But the clock was ticking away. The UN proposal would not remain on the table forever. If those in Geneva understood that in any case there was no deal with Rwanda, and if that country realized that Israel was trying to send it asylum seekers in handcuffs, then Israel’s leverage would disappear. Caught between the hammer of the UNHCR and the anvil of the High Court of Justice, the Prime Minister’s Office decided to quickly and quietly sign the agreement that would remove almost half the asylum seekers from the country – a better and more realistic solution than the previous ones, one that would enable Israel to preserve its democratic image in the face of pressure from Western nations and the Jewish community in the United States

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Interior Minister Arye Dery was urgently summoned to the talks, and he too was convinced. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit approved the deal and agreed that it was unnecessary to bring it to a vote in the full cabinet, and that the approval of two ministers was enough: the foreign minister, who also happens to be the prime minister, and the interior minister.

Still, in order to prepare the political base for the move, representatives of the right wing in south Tel Aviv neighborhoods were invited to a meeting on Monday morning, before the announcement, as were a number of ministers: Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan; Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev; Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis; and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin. The ministers chose not to attend, according to the Prime Minister's Office. Each had their own reasons – Passover, or not enough notice. Or they simply didn’t bother.

One of the ministers, however, described the situation a bit differently: They were invited on very short notice the evening before to meet with Horowitz, without any explanation about the purpose of the meeting or its importance, and to a meeting in which Netanyahu would not participate at all. When Netanyahu really wants to update us, he knows very well how to call, the ministers said.

The agreement was signed, a celebratory press conference was called, and the rest is sad history. The first to personally launch an attack was a minister who had not been invited at all: Education Minister Naftali Bennett. After him, the dam burst, and dumbfounded Likud ministers joined in attacking Netanyahu – a very unusual step. For years he has encouraged them to mark the asylum seekers as enemies, and now he makes a joke out of them with such a U-turn?

From this moment on, the political team took control. The response by the Likud voter base on social networking sites was analyzed in depth, and it emerged that the situation was bad. Netanyahu was bleeding support. Thousands of angry emojis punctuated the video clip that tried to explain the decision logically.

The level-headed Horowitz and Ben-Shabbat were pushed aside and the political staff explained the situation to Netanyahu. In a sharp about-face, he announced the suspension of the agreement in another post. After late-night meetings, the suspension turned into the complete cancellation of the project that Horowitz and Ben-Shabbat had worked so hard on.

Ben-Shabbat told his colleagues on Tuesday that he sees his role as being responsible for preparing alternatives and bringing them to the elected leadership to make a decision, similar to the way the military presents alternatives on military matters – and often these are not accepted. People in Netanyahu’s circle said he has great respect for his national security adviser, but he has made his final decision.

The UNHCR in Geneva and in Tel Aviv, as well as the diplomatic corps in Israel, were all shocked by the stunning flip-flop. They hadn’t even finished reporting on the agreement when it was cancelled, without the full legal implications being clear yet. A clear signature in the name of Israel suddenly became worthless. But the political staff began to breathe easier: The emojis on Facebook were smiling once again, hearts decorated the post in which Netanyahu surrendered, and the angry faces wandered off to search for other politicians.