Netanyahu Nixes Asylum Seeker Deal After Right-wing Pushback; 'We Will Remove the Infiltrators'

Under breakthrough deal, 16,000 migrants were to be resettled in Western countries, and the same number in Israel. Less than 24 hours after announced, Netanyahu caved in to pressure from his party, coalition partners

Netanyahu touring south Tel Aviv neighborhoods in August, 2017.
Moti Milrod

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Tuesday that Israel is cancelling a deal with the United Nations refugee agency on the resettling of African asylum seekers. The deal was annnounced by Netanyahu himself on Monday afternoon.

The deal was set to stop the forced deportation to Africa from Israel of asylum seekers, resettle 16,000 of them in Israel and the same number in Western countries. Netanyahu hours later decided to suspend the deal, even though he has already signed it, following pressure from within his party and from coalition members.

Netanyahu announced the cancellation of the deal at the start of a meeting he held with residents of south Tel Aviv. "I listened closely to many comments about the agreement," Netanyahu said. "After reevaluating the advantages and disadvantages [of the deal], I decided to cancel the deal."

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"Despite the growing legal and international limitation, we will continue to act work with determination to exhaust all possibilities at our disposal to remove the infiltrators," Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu was meeting the residents at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv. Residents opposing the deportation of asylum seekers from Israel protested outside the base, saying that they were not invited to attend the meeting.

The UN refugee agency expressed dismay over the nixing of the deal in a statement later Tuesday. "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," the agency said.

Tel Aviv residents protesting outside a meeting between Netanyahu and local residents about a deal with the UN to resettle asylum seekers, April 3, 2018.
Meged Gozani

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Al-Haj Hassan, an asylum seeker from Sudan and a representative of the community, said Netanyahu was “using us for his political game.” 

“We’ve been here for 10 years already but no solutions have been offered,” Hassan said. “We support the request to resettle us in safe Western countries. If they decide to send us back to the countries we came from, that means the government in Israel is ignoring the crisis in the countries we came from and supporting the governments of Sudan and Eritrea. 

“We still draw hope from the fact that the public in Israel still stands with us,” he said, adding, “We will continue to protest, using all the tools available to us.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely praised the move, saying: "Cancelling the deal with the UN on the infiltrators was the right decision. The Israeli government will find a way to reach the desirable decision – the removal of infiltrators from Israel.

"We will not reward migrant workers with the title of 'refugees.' They were and remain migrant workers who broke the law by entering Israel illegally."

Earlier, Education Minister Naftali Bennett criticized Netanyahu and said that suspending a deal was not enough, and called for its cancellation.

"I am glad that the prime minister has withdrawn [from the deal], but that's not enough. We have to cancel this deal, and mainly to take out the infiltrators [from Israel], Bennett, head of the Habayit Hayehudi party, told Israel Radio.

"The deal with the UN on the resettlement of infiltrators is bad for Israel," Bennett later wrote in a Facebook post. "Its approval will set a precedent that Israel is granting residency to illegal infiltrators. The Israeli government will not be able to convince anyone in the future that infiltrating into Israel isn't worthwhile.

Gideon Saar, a former interior minister and a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, also criticized the deal earlier, saying it would affect Israel's immigration policy. "There was no need to make an agreement with the UNHCR," he said. "I've always opposed that they have a say in this issue," he said.

"I call to cancel this whole deal. I hope the prime minister will declare that he's cancelled the agreement, as it sets a precarious precedent for our immigration policy, and the world must see what we decide."

Against a backlash from politicians and others against the plan, hours after it was unveiled at a news conference, Netanyahu took to Facebook, writing: “In the interim, I am suspending implementation of the agreement, and after I meet with the representatives, I will submit the agreement for reexamination,” in a reference to representatives of south Tel Aviv neighborhoods.

Explaining that an initial plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda in Africa had fallen apart, he said he then sought to resolve the matter through an agreement with the UN refugee agency. He placed blame for Rwanda’s reconsideration of the agreement to accept asylum seekers from Israel on the New Israel Fund and European Union officials. 

“Nevertheless I am attentive to you, and first and foremost to the residents of south Tel Aviv. Therefore I have decided to meet with representatives of the residents tomorrow [Tuesday] morning together with Interior Minster Arye Dery. In the interim, I am suspending implementation of the agreement, and after I meet with the representatives, I will submit the agreement for reexamination.”