Israel is looking into renewing negotiations with the UN's refugee agency over a deal to find a solution for the African asylum seekers living in the country, a report on Israel's Channel 10 News said Wednesday evening.
In early April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that a deal had been signed with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to resettle some of the asylum seekers, but he backed out of the agreement with the UN less than a day later due to backlash from his political base.
On Wednesday, Channel 10 reported that the UN agency reached out to Israel and said that as far as it was concerned, the deal was still on the table. In response, Israel's National Security Council reached out to UN officials with the aim of renegotiating the deal and improving its terms.
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The signed agreement was to end the forced deportation to Africa from Israel of asylum seekers, resettling 16,000 in Israel permanently and an additional 16,000 in Western countries. According to the report, Jerusalem seeks to reduce the number of asylum seekers who are to remain in Israel.
In response to the report, the UN refugee agency said that its initial statement, according to which the deal was "a win-win that would benefit both Israel and the people needing asylum," still stands.
In response to the report, the Prime Minister's Office said that "after Israel refused the last outline put forward by the UN, the [UNHCR] reached out for a dialog – but at this point there is no progress on the topic."
Last week, Israel admitted in court that its plan to relocate African asylum seekers has fallen through and that there is currently no possibility to forcibly deport them.
In a statement, the state said it would stop holding pre-deportation hearings for asylum seekers and that any previous decisions on the matter are now nullified.
A coalition of human rights groups petitioned Israel's High Court of Justice last month to demand that those who face deportation be allowed to see the agreements Israel allegedly signed with Rwanda or Uganda, the countries to which it planned to deport them. Both African nations deny the existence of such deals.
At the time Netanyahu nixed the deal, the UN agency said in a statement that "it is with disappointment that UNHCR notes today's cancellation by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Israel-UNHRC Agreement of April 2 on solutions for Eritreans and Sudanese currently in Israel.
"UNHCR continues to believe that a win-win agreement that would benefit Israel and people needing asylum is in everyone's best interests. And we encourage the Government of Israel to reconsider the matter further, while standing reading to be of help," the statement further noted.
The UN agency also said that the deal with the Israeli government "was the result of discussions over an extended period of time, and reflected a shared effort to find a solution that gave international protection to people arriving in Israel fleeing war or persecution while also meeting the concerns of Israeli host communities."
The refugee agency also stated at the time that it is offering to work with Israel to identify and "respond to the protection needs" of asylum seekers in the Jewish state.
Netanyahu announced the cancellation of the deal at the start of a meeting he held with residents of south Tel Aviv. Most of the city's asylym seekers live in the area, and many longtime residents have complained about and agitated against their presence there.
"I listened closely to many comments about the agreement," Netanyahu said. "After reevaluating the advantages and disadvantages, I decided to cancel the deal. Despite the growing legal and international limitations," he added, "we will continue to act with determination to exhaust all possibilities at our disposal to remove the infiltrators."
In Israel, the cancellation of the deal sparked a firestorm of angry reactions.
Right-wing groups that criticized the plan as insufficiently comprehensive welcomed the U-turn, while left-wing organizations condemned the cancellation and attacked the premier for his indecisiveness.
Human rights organizations also attacked Netanyahu's decision, calling it a play in a political game.