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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Netanyahu scraps UN agreement to send migrants to West

Leaving tens of thousands in limbo 

African asylum seekers and Israelis protest against the African asylum seekers deportation, in front of the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. Abir Sultan / EPA
African asylum seekers and Israelis protest against the African asylum seekers deportation, in front of the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. Abir Sultan / EPA

In a volte face seemingly impelled by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's political considerations, the Israeli leader on Tuesday cancelled an agreement with the UN refugee agency to resettle thousands of African migrants.

As a result, thirty thousand Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel were hurled into limbo once again.

The agreement, which Mr Netanyahu had announced one a day earlier, had safely resolved the status of the asylum seekers who had previously been earmarked by the Israeli government for deportation to Rwanda and Uganda. According to its provisions, half of them were to be resettled in western countries and the other to be given temporary Israeli residency.

Right-wing elements inside and outside Mr Netanyahu's Likud party flayed him for allowing 16,250 asylum seekers to remain in the country, rejecting his explanation that "legal imperatives and diplomatic difficulties" had forced the abandonment of the expulsion plan and the acceptance of the agreement with the UN.

The agreement was a dramatic, if short-lived reversal by the government which had planned to face asylum seekers, whom it designated as work migrants and "illegal infiltrators" with a choice between expulsion and indefinite imprisonment.

The asylum seekers, fleeing war in Sudan and indefinite military service in Eritrea had crossed into Israel through the Sinai Peninsula in the years before the border fence was completed in 2013.

The expulsion plans were opposed by groups including Holocaust survivors, doctors and airline pilots who said they would refuse to fly planes with deportees.

Two large demonstrations were held in Tel Aviv on behalf of the refugees. Mainstream American Jewish groups came out against the plan and even leading American Jewish Israeli advocate Alan Dershowitz said it had a "whiff" of racism. For the Israeli left, cancellation of the deportations was a rare victory.

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Read more:

Netanyahu cancels deal on African migrants after right-wing backlash

Israel backtracks on forced deportation of African asylum seekers

Comment: With more Palestinians than Jews, Israel is waging a numerical war of attrition

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Naftali Bennett, the education minister and head of the far-right Jewish Home party was instrumental in Mr Netanyahu's retreat, which at first took the form of a mere suspension.

Mr Bennett accused Mr Netanyahu of "surrender" to left-wing opposition and declared that the agreement with UNHCR would "turn Israel into a garden of Eden for infiltrators."

Mr Netanyahu's suspension of the agreement was not enough for Mr Bennett, who tweeted early on Tuesday that it needed to be "completely cancelled." Otherwise, he warned "the government of Israel won't be able to convince anyone in the future that infiltrating isn't worthwhile."

Former education minister Gideon Saar, who is seen as a possible heir to Mr Netanyahu and Israeli residents of south Tel Aviv, where many of the asylum seekers live, also took to social media to denounce the agreement.

At the start of a meeting with south Tel Aviv residents, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared: "I have listened intently to the many observations about the agreement. I have reviewed anew the balance of advantages and disadvantages and I have decided to nullify the agreement."

Sam Lehman-Wilzig, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, commented: "he never was a statesman. He doesn't have political spine, he's never had it. He's a politician who only cares about staying in power and who goes the way his street wants him to go. This is embarrassing even by his standards."

But the deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotoveli, said Israel would still find a way "to reach the desirable decision, the removal of the infiltrators from Israel."

That will not be simple. The Israeli supreme court last month ordered a temporary halt to the expulsion plan, demanding more details from the state on the agreement the government claimed it had with Rwanda to take deportees.

But in making his case for the agreement with UNHCR on Monday, Mr Netanyahu said Rwanda had backed off from an initial willingness to accept expelled Eritreans and Sudanese. And Rwanda's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Olivier Nduhungirehe told Israeli Radio on Tuesday that "there was never a deal with Israel neither in writing nor verbally."

Under the circumstances, it appears unlikely that the court will endorse deportations. "We are still in a much better situation than we were a few days ago," said Sigal Rozen, a staffer at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.

"Although Netanyahu said he is cancelling the agreement with UNHCR, he was forced to admit publicly there is no agreement with Rwanda on accepting people," said Mr Sigal.

"He can't deport because he has no place to deport to. He can continue to oppress and abuse them but he can't deport them."