Caught Off Guard, Key Netanyahu Allies Fume at Deal Signed With UN on Asylum Seekers

Netanyahu failed to share developments with Likud leaders and other lawmakers ■ Key coalition member Bennett: Deal 'will turn Israel into a paradise for infiltrators'

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.
Gali Tibbon, Pool via AP

The announcement Monday that Israel signed a deal with the United Nations refugee agency to cancel the mass deportation of asylum seekers has caused disappointment among Likud lawmakers and other government members.

UPDATE: Netanyahu suspends asylum seeker deal with UN after right-wing pushback

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to share the dramatic developments with the leadership of his own Likud party in advance, causing some lawmakers to call for a renegotiation of the deal. The collapse of the original plan — to send the asylum seekers to Rwanda — was only discussed with a small group of government staffers and Interior Minister Arye Dery.

According to Dery, Israel agreed with the UNHCR to resettle one asylum seeker in a Western country for every asylum seeker awarded temporary residency status in Israel. In a statement, the Prime Minister's Office gave these numbers as 16,250 each. Currently more than 39,000 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea live in Israel, so the fate of the remaining 6,500 is unclear.

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"For several weeks, Netanyahu has dispatched cabinet ministers to make declarations from a sheet of messages [stating] that we will be expelling all of the infiltrators," a senior Likud official said Monday evening in reference to the asylum seekers, "but at the last moment, he's calling them labor migrants and is given a huge victory to the left wing."

Most Likud party members of the cabinet refused to respond to the developments, saying that they needed to study the new plan. One minister, however, commented: "No one, even those who don't like the decision, will criticize the prime minister. That's how it is."

The leader of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, warned in a tweet that the plan "will turn Israel into a paradise for infiltrators." He called the plan "a total surrender to the false campaign that has been disseminated in the media in recent weeks" in support of the asylum seekers.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of Habayit Hayehudi said of the plan: "Contrary to the briefings, I was not a partner to the agreement and was not summoned to any meeting on the subject at the Prime Minister's Office. I had no idea that the plan had been signed and approved. I was aware of the intention [to reach agreement] and of the contacts." Israel "does not need to resign itself to infiltrators who came here illegally remaining," she added.

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev of the prime minister's Likud party expressed concern about what she said on its face appears to be a "quick concession." Her Likud party Knesset colleague, Yoav Kish said he "accepted" the plan "with understanding but with major concern." The public, he said, had been misled by a campaign on the issue by "extreme left-wing organizations" and added that any agreement must provide for the eviction of the "infiltrators."

Likud Knesset member Oren Hazan tweeted: "The government is now trying to fudge its capitulation on the matter of the infiltrators with nice words that have no practical significance. The bottom line:  A little public pressure and this 'strong' government has simply capitulated."

There are an estimated 39,000 asylum seekers in Israel, most of whom are from Eritrea or Sudan and crossed the border from Egypt, before the border was reinforced with a new security fence. The government's initial plan was to have a substantial number of them resettled in Rwanda and Uganda.

Netanyahu said the shift in policy came after it became clear that plans to deport asylum seekers to "a third country" had to be changed when "it became clear that the third country does not meet the [required] conditions." For his part, however, Bennett, who is education minister, said the original plan was "moral and just and action should be taken only based on it."

Genuine refugees from "dangerous places" should be "absorbed" in Israel, whereas "labor infiltrators," as he called them, should be "sent back," Bennett said, implying that many of the asylum seekers are migrants in search of work and not refugees. Israel is a signatory to an international refugee convention that requires it to give asylum to those demonstrating "a well-founded fear of persecution" if they were returned to their home countries.

"Through the new plan, Israel will be absorbing labor migrants who have never submitted asylum requests!" the Habayit Hayehudi leader said. The new plan "sends a dangerous message to the whole world," Bennett tweeted. "Anyone who manages to infiltrate into Israel illegally earns the reward of residency here or in a Western country."

Referring to south Tel Aviv, where many of the asylum seekers have settled, Bennett warned: "The credibility of the Israeli government is in the balance here, in addition to our obligation to south Tel Aviv residents who are living as 'a state within a state.' I call on the prime minister to submit the [new] plan to the cabinet for debate and approval/ rejection at the next cabinet meeting."