Hours after announcing a landmark agreement with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to resettle 16,000 asylum seekers in Western countries, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put the deal on ice.
Bowing to pressure from his coalition partners, Netanyahu announced on Facebook that he would revisit the plan after meeting with residents of migrant-dense neighborhoods in South Tel Aviv on Tuesday.
"In the past two years I have been working with Rwanda so that it will serve as a third country that absorbs infiltrators who will be deported without their consent. This is the only legal way for us to deport infiltrators without their consent, after the rest of our moves have been legally disqualified. Rwanda agreed to this
and began the deportation operation," Netanyahu wrote.
"In recent weeks, under tremendous pressure on Rwanda by the New Israel Fund and elements in the European Union, Rwanda withdrew from the agreement and has refused to absorb infiltrators from Israel who are forcibly removed," he added.
Initially, Netanyahu named Canada, Italy and Germany as countries in which the migrants could be resettled as part of the agreement.
Earlier on Monday, Netanyahu announced that Israel had come to a deal with the United Nations to halt forced deportations of asylum-seekers to Africa. As part of the deal, the UN said it would place some 16,000 migrants in Western countries, and that Israel would implement solutions for an additional 23,000 who would remain in Israel.
However, both Italy and Germany denied any such agreement.
The Prime Minister’s Office then clarified that Netanyahu had just named those countries as examples of Western countries. A spokeswoman for UNHCR, Sharon Harel, told The Jerusalem Post that it’s the job of the UNHCR to identify countries to absorb the asylum-seekers and that neither of those countries were among them. She added that the high commission has identified other countries but won’t announce which ones until the plans have been finalized.
When asked for a comment on the deal, the UNHCR referred The Jerusalem Post
to the Prime Minister's Office.
In response to the deal, several members of the coalition - including the cabinet - expressed disdain for its announcement.
Education Minister and Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett said that “granting legal status to 16,000 infiltrators will turn Israel into a paradise for infiltrators and is a surrender to the false campaign spread in the media in recent months.”
“The original outline was moral and just, and we must follow it, alone. Refugees from dangerous places will be absorbed in Israel, work migrants will be sent back. In the new plan, work migrants who didn’t even apply to be refugees, will be absorbed,” he said. “By signing this agreement, we are sending a dangerous message to the whole world: Whoever succeeds in infiltrating Israel illegally will get a prize of legal residence here or a Western country.”
Taking to Twitter after Netanyahu's latest announcement, Bennett said that the deal had been a "bad agreement," and added that the government must "proceed to a new road map will remove the illegal infiltrators from Israel."
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said she had nothing to do with the new agreement and did not know about it, only that there were negotiations with the UN Refugee Agency.
Culture Minister Miri Regev opposed changes to the deportation plan, saying that the asylum-seekers had entered Israel illegally and thus any negotiations with a United Nations body that deals with refugee issues were not legitimate. Regev, who has previously referred to the asylum-seekers as a "cancer" expressed concern about the "identity and social fabric" of the country should asylum-seekers be permitted to remain.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Meretz praised the deal, saying that "the government has finally understood the need to absorb refugees." Ayman Odeh of the Joint List said he was "happy for the African refugees and the residents of south Tel Aviv, and I praise those who fought with them, shoulder to shoulder."
Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay said that Monday was a "sad, embarrassing and disturbing night" after Netanyahu indefinitely halted the deal.
Israeli officials announced earlier in 2018 that it had come to an agreement with Rwanda and Uganda in which each country would accept asylum-seekers being deported from Israel at $5,000 per person. Both countries denied that such a deal had ever been reached.
The state's deportation plan - which originally called for "voluntary" deportation by which asylum-seekers would be given $3,500 and a plane ticket to either Rwanda or Uganda, or face incarceration and deportation - was heavily criticized both domestically and abroad, by leaders, NGOs and the United Nations. Since it was announced earlier this year, weekly protests have been held in Tel Aviv and other cities across the country against the plan.