In Backtrack, Israeli Opposition Party Now Supports Deportation of Asylum Seekers

New Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay led support among Zionist Union lawmakers for a government bill calling for the expulsion of asylum seekers, marking a stark U-turn in the party's position

The main opposition list, the Zionist Union, of which the Labor Party is partner, will support a government bill advocating the expulsion of asylum seekers, reversing its position following an initiative by its new chairman, Avi Gabbay.

On Monday, 11 Zionist Union Knesset members supported Gabbay’s stance at a meeting of the party’s legislators, while nine opposed and two abstained. Previously, the party overwhelmingly opposed expulsion, even supporting residency status for asylum seekers.

Later Monday the bill passed in a preliminary vote in the Knesset 53 to 10. Most of the Zionist Union MKs supporting the position change were absent from the Knesset vote.

“We don’t have to be more righteous than the High Court of Justice,” Gabbay said at the meeting on the asylum-seeker issue. “We don’t have to argue with every population group. We would pay a heavy price for opposing the bill.”

Gabbay is the Zionist Union’s new leader after having been elected head of the Labor Party, the Zionist Union’s senior partner. He is not an MK. Isaac Herzog, who remains opposition leader in the Knesset, used a common Israeli term for asylum seekers when he said, “The infiltrators took Israeli Arab jobs.”

MK Yoel Hasson added, “The law matches the High Court of Justice’s ruling.”

The 11 Zionist Union MKs supporting the bill were Herzog, Hasson, Tzipi Livni, Revital Swid, Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, Itzik Shmuli, Leah Fadida, Eitan Broshi, Hilik Bar, Saleh Saad and Nachman Shai.

MK Yael Cohen Paran asked why the party’s position had changed, and MK Shelly Yacimovich said that “it’s morally impossible to support this.”

MK Zouheir Bahloul said, “I don’t understand how the party can support such an immoral move by the right, which seeks to throw refugees to hell.” He added: “Angela Merkel was willing to take the political risk until Election Day and take her moral stance of accepting thousands of refugees, and we hesitate and squirm here. Israel can handle a few tens of thousands of refugees and spread them across the country.”

After the debate, Yacimovich, Merav Michaeli, Stav Shaffir, Omer Bar-Lev, Eyal Ben-Reuven, Ksenia Svetlova, Bahloul, Amir Peretz and Cohen Paran  voted against the measure. Yossi Yonah and Michal Biran abstained.

On Sunday, the cabinet unanimously approved the proposal by Interior Minister Arye Dery and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to close the Holot detention center in four months.

At the same time, the government plans to begin deporting asylum seekers by telling them they will have to leave for Rwanda; otherwise they will be jailed for an indefinite period. Thus far, Israel has been pressuring Eritrean and Sudanese nationals to leave, but has not deported them.

Last year, all Zionist Union MKs signed the bill that would have granted residential and work permits to all Eritrean and Sundanese asylum seekers who could not be deported to their home countries because of the danger to them there.

At the time, there were an estimated 41,000 such asylum seekers. Now they number closer to 38,000. The bill called for giving them one-year permits allowing them to work in Israel legally. The Zionist Union also proposed giving financial incentives to municipalities.