(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backtracked on a just-announced agreement with the United Nations to let about 20,000 African migrants remain in Israel, following an outcry from coalition partners and his political base.
On Monday afternoon, Netanyahu called a news conference to disclose Israel had canceled an earlier plan to deport all 38,000 migrants to Africa, following mass demonstrations against the policy at home and criticism from abroad. Instead, he said, he reached a deal with the UN refugee agency to send at least 16,250 migrants to the West, and give the rest temporary residency in Israel.
Hours later, in a late-night Facebook post, he announced he was rethinking that agreement as well. On Tuesday morning, after meeting with unhappy residents from south Tel Aviv, where most of the migrants have concentrated, he confirmed he was backing out of the UN deal.
“After I weighed the pros and cons anew, I decided to cancel the agreement,” Netanyahu said in comments sent by text from his office. “Despite the legal restrictions and the international difficulties that are piling up, we’ll continue working with determination to find every option available to us to deport the infiltrators.”
The UNHCR mission in Israel didn’t return a call seeking comment.
As many as 60,000 people, most fleeing Sudan, Eritrea and other countries with poor human rights records, crossed illegally into Israel through the porous border with Egypt between 2005 and 2012. Many settled in poor sections of Tel Aviv, to the chagrin of some residents, who appealed to the government to send them away.
Netanyahu and other politicians who objected to the migrants’ presence insisted that the overwhelming majority didn’t flee persecution but came seeking a better life in Israel. They called them a “cancer” and a “scourge” and warned that over time they would dilute Israel’s Jewish majority. The government erected a barrier along the border with Egypt that stopped the migration.
The migrants’ champions defended them as genuine asylum-seekers and argued that the Jewish state, born in part on the ashes of the Holocaust, shouldn’t expel people who claimed they would face persecution if returned to Africa.
The government originally hoped to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda. In his Facebook post, Netanyahu said that plan had fallen through because the New Israel Fund -- a leftist organization critical of many of his policies -- and “elements” within the European Union had brought “tremendous pressure” on Rwanda not to follow through.
Israel Radio cited Rwanda’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Olivier Nduhungirehe, as denying his government had ever reached an agreement with Israel to take in African migrants.
The European Union mission in Israel tweeted: “Guess it’s just one of those days. At 20:57 you congratulate #Israel & @refugees on their agreement, at 21:46 you like @IsraelMFA announcement on the deal, at 22:50 the PM suspends it and blames, among others, #EU (where #UNHCR hoped to resettle significant number of refugees).”
Netanyahu’s about-face on the original plan, and then his additional turn, came under intense fire. Supporters of the original plan had accused Netanyahu of buckling when he agreed with the UN to allow more than half the Africans to stay. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads the Jewish Home party, said the UN deal would “turn Israel into a Garden of Eden for infiltrators.”
When he learned that the accord was canceled, Bennett congratulated Netanyahu in a tweet, saying “a long-lasting tragedy has been averted.”
The Ynet news website cited Avi Gabbay, chairman of the opposition Zionist Union party, as attacking Netanyahu’s “lack of leadership and cowardice.” Lawmaker Stav Shaffir, also of Zionist Union, said Netanyahu’s zigzagging didn’t inspire confidence in a leader “who is the one to decide whether to send soldiers to war.”
“Is that how decisions are made? By the feedback index?” she asked on Twitter. “One word of criticism from right-wing radicals and he caves?”
Unlike countries in Europe that recognized thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese as political refugees, Israel granted refugee status to very few. Many were sent to detention centers, where they were pressured to accept payments to leave Israel. Over the years, about 22,000 were sent to African countries including South Sudan, Rwanda and Uganda.
After Netanyahu and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri in September unveiled their plan to deport the migrants, rights organizations sought to help them apply for refugee status and held demonstrations that brought out thousands of Israelis from around the country. Major international Jewish organizations and members of the U.S. Congress called on Netanyahu to cancel the deportations.
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