Jewish Lawmakers Call on Netanyahu to Reconsider UN Deal on Asylum Seekers

Democratic congressmen and women write to PM, saying they were 'dismayed' that agreement to resettle 16,500 Africans in West was canceled within 24 hours of being announced due to right-wing pressure

African asylum seekers protesting against deportation in Tel Aviv,  February 24, 2018.
Ariel Schalit/AP

WASHINGTON – Eighteen Jewish members of Congress sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, urging him to reconsider the deal his government reached but then canceled with the United Nations on the deporation of African asylum seekers.

The members, all Democrats, said they were "heartened" by the signing of the agreement and "disappointed" by Netanyahu's swift decision to retract it on April 3 following strong right-wing pressure in Israel.

The UN deal stated that Israel would be able to send as many as 16,500 asylum seekers to Western countries, while allowing a similar number to remain in Israel until a better solution arrives.

Israel negotiated the agreement following the collapse of a prior agreement it reportedly had with Rwanda to deport thousands of asylum seekers to that country.

After canceling the UN deal, Netanyahu has signaled that he is once again examining ways of forcibly deporting asylum seekers to an unspecified "third country" in Africa – most likely Uganda.

The congressmen and congresswomen wrote Netanyahu that "in recent months, many of us have heard from constituents who care deeply about Israel and who are also gravely concerned with respect to the future of approximately 38,000 asylum seekers living in the Jewish state. As you are aware, most of the asylum seekers are from Sudan and Eritrea, and cannot be returned to those countries because of international conventions."

The members added that the UN agreement "appeared to provide a long-term solution for the Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers and those concerned about the development and rehabilitation of southern Tel Aviv. However, within a few hours, we were dismayed to hear that the agreement had been suspended, then canceled, leaving the asylum seekers in a limbo with no clear next step."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the news conference announcing the asylum seekers' deal with the UN, Jerusalem, April 2, 2018.
RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Among the signatories are some of the most pro-Israeli Democrats in the current Congress: Ted Deutch (Florida), Eliot Engel (New York), Nita Lowey (also New York) and Brad Sherman (California). They all voted against the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.

Other prominent signatories include Adam Schiff (California) – the most senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee; Jacky Rosen (Nevada), who is running for a Senate seat in her state; and Jerry Nadler (New York), who is the most senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

The letter represents the trend of growing discontent from within the American-Jewish community over Netanyahu's handling of the asylum seeker issue.

Many leading Jewish organizations celebrated the prime minister's decision to sign the UN agreement earlier this month, and praised the Israeli government for finding a humane solution to a complicated problem. The same organizations, however, strongly criticized Netanyahu a day later when it became clear he had withdrawn from the deal.

In addition, a group of leading rabbis from the Washington area met with Israeli Embassy officials last month to discuss their opposition to the deportation plans. The group included Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis, all of whom said the issue was being raised by their own congregants on a regular basis.