Israel has not given up on efforts to find a third party country to take in deported African migrants, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated on Tuesday during a meeting where he completed an about-face by canceling an agreement regarding the migrants he dramatically announced and advocated for less than 24 hours earlier.
The prime minister said that despite “growing legal and international difficulties, we will continue to act with determination to exhaust all the possibilities available to us to remove the infiltrators, and at the same time we will continue to look for additional solutions.”
Netanyahu’s announcement came during a meeting in his office with residents of south Tel Aviv neighborhoods opposed to the policy he announced on Monday that would have allowed some 16,250 of the African migrants to remain in the country, while a similar number would – under an agreement reached with the Office of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees – be absorbed in other Western countries.
“Every year I make thousands of decisions that benefit the State of Israel and the citizens of Israel,” he said. “From time to time a decision is made that needs to be reconsidered.”
Netanyahu said that in the 24 hours that have passed since his dramatic announcement at a press conference on Monday about the UN agreement, he consulted with Interior Ministry Arye Deri as well as with professionals dealing with the issue and representatives of the residents of south Tel Aviv, where many of the migrants live.
After listening to their many reservations about the agreement, and evaluating anew the pluses and minuses, Netanyahu said he decided to cancel the agreement. Late on Monday night – just six hours after his press conference – he wrote on his Facebook page that he was “postponing” implementation of the deal.
“Over the last two years I worked with Rwanda so that it would be the ‘third country’ to absorb infiltrators we would deport against their will,” he wrote. “That is the only legal way that remained for us to remove the infiltrators against their will, since all our others moves were disqualified on legal grounds.”
Netanyahu said that Rwanda agreed,
and the deportation process began.
But, he continued, “in recent weeks, after tremendous pressure on Rwanda from the New Israel Fund and sources in the European Union, Rwanda folded on the agreement and refused to absorb infiltrators who would be removed from Israel by force.”
Migrants, activists in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv protest Netanyahu's scrapping of relocation deal, April 3, 2018 (Reuters/Tamara Zieve)
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He wrote that this was the reason he sought another path – this time with the UNHCR – that would remove thousands of the infiltrators.
ALONG WITH RWANDA, Uganda was the other African nation that had agreed in principle to take in the migrants, with both nations to receive payment, as would the migrants. Now that Rwanda is no longer a possibility, Israel is reportedly looking into the possibility that Uganda will still be willing to do so. Uganda’s Foreign Minister Henry Okello Oryem was quoted Tuesday as categorically ruling out that possibility.
The one decision that Netanyahu announced at his Monday press conference that will remain in effect, he said, is the decision to establish a rehabilitation administration for south Tel Aviv.
The UNHRC, meanwhile, issued a statement expressing “regret” that the prime minister canceled the agreement.
“The agreement was the result of discussions over an extended period of time, and reflected a shared effort to find a solution that gave international protection to people arriving in Israel fleeing war or persecution while also meeting the concerns of Israeli host communities,” the statement read.
The statement encouraged Israel to “consider the matter further,” and said the agency remains “ready to be of help.”
ON TUESDAY EVENING Netanyahu took sharp aim at the New Israel Fund, accusing the left-wing NGO of triggering European pressure on Rwanda to withdraw from the agreement. Writing on his Facebook page, he instructed coalition chairman David Amsalem to work toward the establishment of a parliamentary committee of inquiry to look into the organization’s activities that, he charged, endanger “the security and future of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.”
Netanyahu accused the NIF of being a “foreign” organization that gets funds from foreign governments and organizations hostile to Israel, such as those funded by George Soros.
The principle aim of the NIF, he wrote, is to “erase the Jewish nature of Israel and turn it into a state of all its citizens – alongside a Palestine state free of Jews along the 1967 lines, with Jerusalem as its capital.”
The NIF responded that Netanyahu had crossed all redlines in his words against the fund. The organization called on “all Israelis who fear the threat of Bibi to Israeli democracy” to stand behind the NIF, singling out the heads of all the parties in the Knesset other than the Likud, and “liberal voices” in the ruling party.
“This is a battle for Israeli democracy, and we are Israel,” the NIF said.
An NIF spokesman said the fund had no contacts with the Rwandan government and that all information on the workings of the NIF is transparent and reported to relevant authorities.
NETANYAHU’S CALL for a parliamentary committee of inquiry is unlikely to get off the ground, in light of an opinion given by Knesset Legal Adviser Eyal Yinon in October that the legislature does not have the authority to open a commission of inquiry into left-wing NGOs. At the time, the Prime Minister’s Office sought to have the Knesset look into foreign donations to organizations that accuse the IDF of war crimes.
Yinon said investigating civil-society organizations for ideological reasons “violates basic governmental principles. Parliamentary commissions of inquiry are not the place for ideological clarifications, and they are meant to oversee the government, not civil society.”
Meretz chairwoman Tamar Zandberg accused Netanyahu of demonizing the NIF and called him paranoid. The Meretz faction will sponsor the plan Netanyahu worked on with the UNHCR as a Knesset bill when the legislature returns from its spring recess on April 30.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Kulanu chairman Moshe Kahlon and Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett said their parties would support Netanyahu’s effort to bypass the High Court of Justice and pass a law that would enable him to deport the migrants.
Zionist Union faction chairman Yoel Hasson said he asked State Comptroller Joseph Shapira to probe Netanyahu’s behavior on the migrant issue over the past two days.
Meanwhile, a Midgam poll broadcast on Channel 10 found that the public was against the UN plan and disapproved of Netanyahu’s behavior. Nevertheless, the poll also found that Netanyahu’s Likud would strengthen from its current 30 Knesset seats to 32 if an election were held now.
Yesh Atid would rise from 11 seats to 21, the Joint List would maintain its 13 mandates and the Zionist Union would fall from 24 to 12. Bayit Yehudi would rise from eight seats to 10, Kulanu and Meretz would each win seven, Yisrael Beytenu and United Torah Judaism five each, and Shas and a new party being formed by MK Orly Levy-Abecassis would each win four, according to the poll.Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.
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