UN Refugee Agency Says 'Disappointed' With Netanyahu's Nixing of Asylum Seeker Deal

UNHCR says it still believes a 'win-win agreement' would benefit all sides after Netanyahu nixed deal less than 24 hours after first announcing its signing

Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, speaks during a press conference in Beirut, Lebanon, March 9, 2018.
Hussein Malla/AP

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released an official statement Tuesday afternoon in which it expressed its dismay over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to cancel the deal with the UN to resettle African asylum seekers from Israel.

"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 statement reads.

"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.

>> Asylum seeker farce: Netanyahu, master manipulator, is now at the mercy of Facebook | Analysis >>

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."

UNHCR also stated earlier Tuesday 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 Tuesday that Israel is cancelling the deal with the UN. The plan was annnounced by Netanyahu himself on Monday afternoon.

The agreement 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."

"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.

In Israel, the cancellation of the deal sparked a firestorm of angry reactions.

Right-wing groups that attacked the plan after it was introduced yesterday and claimed that it was not comprehensive enough welcomed the move. Left-wing groups condemned the cancellation and attacked the premier for his indecisiveness.

On the right, Education Minister Naftali Bennett took to Twitter to congratulate Netanyahu for canceling the deal that he was personally opposed to. "I congratulate the prime minister for the wise decision to cancel the agreement to take in the asylum seekers. Irreversible damage has been avoided. Now we must act to deport the illegal infiltrators," Bennett wrote.  

Tzipi Hotovely, Israel's top diplomat, also expressed a similar opinion on Twitter Monday night, blasting that "we will not award work immigrants with the title of refugees. They are and have remained work immigrants who violated the law by illegally entering Israel."

But the left offered criticism. The sitting head of opposition, Isaac Herzog, said that "there is only one way to deal with the absurd play we've seen these past few days- demand the that the lead actor get off the stage immediately." He added that "the incredible U-turn Netanyahu made in the past few hours regarding treatment of the asylum seekers shows the weakness and hysteria of a prime minister whose politics again and again undermine what is good for the country."

Herzog went on to say that "The decision  to violate the international agreement he made  will now make it harder to find a reasonable solution to the issue, making things more complicated for Israel legally, politically and humanitarianly."

Tamar Zandberg, chair of the left-wing Meretz party, also attacked Netanyahu for behaving without respect to policy. "Bibi fled and left a situation in which there was no expulsion, no agreement and no solution for the refugees and residents of south Tel Aviv, all of whom were abandoned by his 'takeback,'" she said.

Human rights organizations also attacked Netanyahu's decision, calling it a play in a political game. 

The group 'Stop the Deportation of Asylum Seekers' said that the decision to cancel the plan is a certificate of poverty  for Netanyahu, and that it will exacerbate tensions between minority groups in south Tel Aviv.  In their comments, the group referred to Netanyahu's promise to set up administrations for the rehabilitation of south Tel Aviv. "In the current state of affairs, it is clear that the idea to set up rehabilitation centers is nothing more than a smokescreen, and that, as usual, the burden will be placed on the disadvantaged sectors of Israeli society," the group stated.

Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, joined the critique, stating that "the prime minister's decision to cancel the deal with the UN hurts Israel's international status and sheds very disturbing light on the process of decision-making made by the Israeli leadership. Beyond everything else, the decision is first and foremost an embarrassing submission to a reclusive and nationalistic interpretation of Judaism and of Israel's values as a Jewish and democratic state. "

Kariv went on to say that "the Reform movement in Israel will continue collaborating with multiple partners in the Israeli society and among the Jewish people [in order to cultivate] a moral and responsible policy toward the asylum seekers."

Reuters contributed to this report.