Netanyahu backtracks, suspending African migrants deal he praised hours earlier

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, with Interior Affairs Minister Aryeh Deri, left, and National Security Council Chairman Meir Ben Shabat, at a press conference announcing the new agreement for handling asylum seekers at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, April 2, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)


(JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is freezing an agreement made with the United Nations that would have relocated thousands of African asylum seekers to Western countries.

His decision leaves in limbo the fate of up to 40,000 African asylum seekers in Israel; an Israeli government plan to deport them this month was put on hold following this morning’s announcement of the U.N. deal.

Just hours after announcing and praising the agreement, Netanyahu said Monday that he needed to consult with residents of South Tel Aviv before carrying it out. Many of the migrants reside in that region of the Israeli city.

In the agreement announced earlier Monday with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, Israel would have allowed thousands of African migrants to stay in the country for up to five years. The rest, some 16,000 or so, would have been settled in countries such as Canada, Germany and Italy.

The deal put Netanyahu under fire from several conservative politicians, including some in his own Likud party. Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Jewish Home party, said it would “turn Israel into a paradise for infiltrators.”

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Netanyahu will also meet with Interior Secretary Aryeh Deri, head of the religious Shas party, before reconsidering the agreement, according to The Times of Israel.

Avi Gabbay, leader of the opposition Israeli Labor Party, said Netanyahu’s turnaround made for a “sad, embarrassing and mostly disturbing evening. We have no reason to assume the Prime Minister’s decision-making process on security issues is any better.”

All day Jewish groups in the United States issued statements applauding the agreement with the U.N. and the suspension of the deportation plan. The  Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Anti-Defamation League, HIAS, the Union for Reform Judaism and the New Israel Fund had all lobbied against the deportation plan. They appealed both to human rights concerns and Israel’s international reputation.

Netanyahu was facing internal pressure to expel the migrants; polls indicate that, despite some heated opposition within Israel itself, a majority of the public supports the deportations. While Israelis have regarded the migrants as a looming social and economic burden, outsiders, including the Congressional Black Caucus and a delegation of U.S. lawmakers to Israel led by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, consider them refugees, not infiltrators.