Opinion

On Asylum Seekers, Netanyahu Shows He Is the Exact Opposite of a Leader

Netanyahu's boasts of launching the Egypt border fence are a stretch of reality meant to hide the failures of a leader enslaved to public opinion

Asylum seekers protest against deportation in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018

Trying to salvage something of his lost honor, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed he was the one who initiated and built the fence on the Egyptian border to stop the inflow of asylum seekers. The truth is otherwise.

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The construction of this barrier was a story of flip-flops, delays and unfulfilled decisions in the usual Netanyahu fashion. When Netanyahu returned to the prime minister’s post in 2009, the issue of asylum-seekers was already high on the agenda. But Netanyahu did not rush to build any border fences, as he now claims.

Some 15,000 asylum seekers entered Israel in 2010, and another 17,000 in 2011, as a result of Netanyahu's inaction. The inflow heightened tensions in south Tel Aviv sparking demonstrations. Under pressure from the residents, Netanyahu revived a previous cabinet decision to build a border wall with Egypt. But the move largely remained on paper: delays and political maneuvering around the issue did not translate into action, and no fence was there to be seen.

The turning point came on August 18th, 2011, when a terror cell crossed into Israel from Sinai and opened fire on two buses and several cars traveling down Route 12 toward Eilat. Six civilians and two security people were killed. The attack shocked the public, which was particularly shaken by the army’s poor performance. Only then, out of fear of other possible terror attacks emanating from Egypt, did the Israel Defense Forces start exerting pressure to build the barrier and the project got underway. The wall was finished in December 2012, halting the flow of asylum seekers since the first months of 2013.

>> Netanyahu Defends Egypt Border Fence: Influx of African Migrants More Dangerous Than Terrorism <<

In other words, Netanyahu’s claims that he launched the construction of the barrier are largely unfounded. Had it not been for the terror attack in 2011, the barrier with Egypt could still not be up today.

For years we have been debating whether those who entered Israel are refugees or migrant workers. Surveys conducted by the Population and Immigration Authority reveal that most of the asylum seekers are migrant workers. This view is corroborated by the fact that 80 percent of them are men aged 25 to 44.

If this is the case, a state has the right to decide how many migrant workers it can absorb. Many studies have shown that foreign workers undermine uneducated manual laborers and that income inequality increases as a result of their entry. The foreigners pressure these workers’ wages downwards and even cause them to be dismissed and lose their jobs.

That’s why I objected to the entry of migrant workers from Romania, China, and Ukraine back in the 1990s. But all this is water under the bridge. Today there are 38,000 asylum seekers in Israel, most of them from Eritrea and Sudan, and they need a solution.

Netanyahu’s agreement with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (which would send 16,000 asylum seekers to the West and leave 22,000 in Israel with work permits) is the right solution: Israel can absorb 22,000 people, whether they are refugees or migrant workers. It is our moral obligation, even if there is a price.

>> Yad Vashem’s Loud Silence Amid Israel's Deportations of Asylum Seekers || Opinion <<

But by the time Netanyahu had struck a fair deal with the UN, he was already backpeddling. A little criticism from the right was enough to make him panic. A few comments from Naftali Bennett and he was rattled. So he reversed course and canceled the agreement. Classic Bibi.

Now everyone loses – first and foremost the asylum seekers, followed by the residents of south Tel Aviv and then the entire public. But Netanyahu also comes out as a loser. It is clear that now no country, either in Africa or in Europe, will agree to accept even one African asylum seeker from Israel, or to negotiate a new deal with Netanyahu. The Prime Minister is left without a solution, after he caused disappointment on all sides.

That’s the way it is with a Prime Minister who lives in constant panic, who is spooked by every online talk-backer, and who makes policy based on public opinion. The exact opposite of a leader.