Migrant deal: What led to Netanyahu's dramatic policy turnaround?

What really caused Netanyahu to reverse his approach on the issue of African migrants?

An African migrant sits on the street in Tel Aviv, Israel January 31, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
An African migrant sits on the street in Tel Aviv, Israel January 31, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
It is an about-face that demands an explanation.
Overnight, literally, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went from advocating the forced deportation of what he has always called “infiltrators” from Africa to a third country on that continent, to announcing a plan whereby Israel would absorb some 16,250 of what he now calls African “migrants,” and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would place an equal number in Western countries.
To listen to Netanyahu on Monday announce the new framework, one could walk away with the impression that it all had to do with the failure of the third country, which Netanyahu never mentions by name but which everyone knows is Rwanda, to live up to its agreement to take in and provide safety, security and a livelihood for the migrants.
“It became apparent very fast that the third country is not living up to the conditions, is not withstanding the pressure, and therefore when it became apparent in recent weeks that the third country is no longer an option, we entered a trap whereby all of them [the migrants] would stay here,” Netanyahu said, explaining why that option was dropped and a new path via the UNHRC was explored.
It is indisputable that problems emerged in the agreement with Rwanda and that this was a key factor in the sudden policy change. But it was not the only factor.
Canadian jurist Irwin Cotler has been involved in this issue for years, including being in contact with UNHCR representatives about the matter. He said there were any number of other factors – beyond the failure of the “African option” – that led to the about-face as well.
The first was the recent Supreme Court decision issuing a temporary restraining order against the forceful deportation of refugees to a third country. In addition, he said there was a “critical mass of protests” to the deportation policy from below that impacted decision makers.
This critical mass included protests against the deportations inside Israel, as well as calls by important constituencies and some governments abroad against the move. For instance, last week a Democratic Congressional delegation led by Nancy Pelosi met with Netanyahu and afterward wrote an open letter urging the release of asylum-seekers being held in detention.
Protesters rally against plans to deport African migrants at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square (ENDING THE DEPORTATION PR)
Protesters rally against plans to deport African migrants at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square (ENDING THE DEPORTATION PR)
A letter from the Black Congressional Caucus to Netanyahu was written in February, calling on Israel not to deport the migrants. And another letter was penned in mid-March by five prominent Israel advocates in the US, including constitutional lawyer Alan Dershowitz, former Anti-Defamation League head Abe Foxman, and the founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Rabbi Marvin Hier warning against the move, and saying it could cause “incalculable damage to the moral standing of Israel and of Jews around the world.”
Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer also warned Netanyahu about the damage this policy would have in the US, especially among African-Americans, among whom Israel already faces significant challenges.
A CONVERGENCE of all these different elements, Cotler said, explains the policy shift.
Cotler added that the UNHRC option has been discussed for years, but that the government was not keen on exploring it, preferring instead to deport the refugees to Africa.
“I think that what happened was that Israel believed it had an agreement with Rwanda,” Cotler said. “My sense was that it was not working, it was never made fully public, and that the security for the asylum-seekers did not come about.”
Rwanda also reportedly chafed at the idea raised in Israel for inspectors to be sent to the east African country to ensure that the migrants were being treated properly.
In addition, Cotler said, Rwanda took over as chairman of the African Union in January, and did not want to be embarrassed by the issue.
Another question that needs to be answered is: Why would the UNHRC want to get involved? The UN is widely considered a hostile body toward Israel, so why would one of its agencies want to help Israel essentially take its coals out of the fire? “The UN is not one homogeneous body,” Cotler said. “We are talking about a particular agency, and it has a historic relationship with this issue that goes back 12 to 15 years.”
Cotler said that the UNHRC was involved in sorting out status issues for the first Sudanese and Eritrean migrants when they arrived in Israel in the previous decade.
Cotler said that he met with UNHCR representatives in January and February, both in Israel and Canada, and that the proposal of utilizing this agency to solve the problem was a proposal on the table for some time.
“Some of us were urging the government to explore this rather than the deportations to Rwanda or Uganda, which we did not feel were legitimate options,” he said.
In the end, the government did get there, but only after traveling a circuitous route that caused gratuitous damage to Israel’s image, damage that Jerusalem will now try to reverse with the plan Netanyahu surprisingly rolled out on Monday.