The latest political farce has deepened this country's status as a cynic's paradise.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, together with Interior Minister Arye Deri, surprised us Monday afternoon with a dramatic announcement that Israel had signed an agreement with the UN Commission on Refugees that a number of western countries would accept half of the illegal African migrants in Israel, and that Israel would provide the other half with a five year period of quasi legality.
It didn't take long for the elements of farce to make themselves known.
The two political stars at the center of the drama were both on the agenda of Israeli Police and prosecutors, and seem headed for rocky times.
Claiming to solve the problems of Israel's illegal Africans provided them only an hour or two of grace.
At least some of the countries mentioned as on the receiving end of the Africans announced that they had no such intention. All of the countries mentioned have substantial political problems with other illegal migrants.
Contributing to the noise are Israeli and overseas rightists and leftists, already well established as feisty elements in this quarrel.
Israelis on the left, encouraged and led by one of the television stations with the help of the New Israel Fund, had sent investigators to Rwanda, one of the central African countries that had accepted some of the migrants Israel had expelled, and had agreed to accept others. Lo and behold, the investigators revealed to themselves and to others that Rwanda was not similar to the better places in western Europe.
Then a campaign involving Israelis and the illegal migrants themselves emphasized the forceful nature of the expulsions, asked how Jews who suffered from the Holocaust could do something equivalent to Africans, spoke of Rwanda as a prison camp and -- no surprise -- produced a statement from the Rwanda government that it had no agreement with Israel about accepting illegal migrants.
The campaign also achieved a decision from the Israeli Supreme Court forbidding forced expulsions until the issue could be adjudicated.
The surprise announcement of Bibi and Arye Deri brought forth applause from the New Israel Fund, Meretz, and left leaning members of Labor/Zionist Union, but opposition from right of center politicians angered in not being consulted. Rightists also allied themselves with activists in South Tel Aviv, a poor neighborhood where many of the Africans have been causing problems for several years, i.e., noise, crowding, petty crime and violence.
As in other countries, the population of illegal immigrants is a mixture of the good and not so good. An unknown number of what is more than 30,000 people have mastered Hebrew, formed families, send their children to school, and work in Israel's gray economy. A few have competed in international competitions with Israeli sport teams.
Not clarified in the dramatic announcement of a deal was the knotty question of which migrants would Israeli keep, and which would be sent elsewhere. Could Israel hold onto those who had made a limited success of their migration, and send the problem cases and troublemakers elsewhere? Would the reverse occur, or some fair mixture of the good and bad to remain or to be sent where they might be accepted.
The administrative problems of sorting and deciding about more than 30,000 cases seemed to escape the sentiments of the New Israeli Fund and its Israeli friends enthused about a humane solution.
All this erupted while Israelis were still quarreling over who would give the key speeches on the eve of Independence Day. Minister of Culture and Sport Meri Regev flipped sides. She had been insisting that Netanyahu be given a key role on the Independence Day podium. With respect to his deal for African migrants, she was sharply critical, and standing with her South Tel Aviv constituency demanding the immediate and total expulsion of all the illegals.
Capturing some of the moods was an article that appeared in the edition of Yedioth Aharonoth on the eve of Passover. Headlined "We were also slaves," it included.
Around a table loaded with matzah and bottles of wine, in the midst of a South Tel Aviv park, refugee seekers celebrated what may have been their first and last Passover Seder. They read and sang in various languages a combination of the traditional passages and modern folk melodies, recounted their own difficult passage through Sinai, not with Moses and Aaron but with Bedouin smugglers. . . . Not far away residents of South Tel Aviv protested that the organizers of the Seder were not from their neighborhood, and were "traitors," while several of the homeless tried to sleep.
Along with the illegal Africans are unknown numbers of illegal non-Africans. They include East Europeans, Latin Americans, Indians, Filipinos and others who came to Israel on work permits or as tourists, and have stayed. Some are sex workers, but most have worked as care providers, house cleaners, construction, agricultural, or industrial workers. Unlike the Africans, they have not caused problems while congregated among Israel's poor, but have settled as individuals or small clusters wherever they could find work.
While both Bibi and Deri may have achieved a few moments of media praise and a sense of accomplishment, the onset of shrill criticism from key politicians in their own parties and others, as well as the unraveling of what they claimed to have achieved as international agreements raise yet again the issues of their political skills and longevity.
Within 12 hours of announcing his breakthrough, Prime Minister Netanyahu reversed himself and announced the cancellation of the agreement.
Israeli diplomats were scurrying to wipe the egg off their faces, and placate who knows which other governments that might have agreed to the quiet acceptance of a few refugees.
Also uncertain are Israeli politicians who have gotten close to the top and are are wondering what this means for their capacity to maneuver higher.
Bibi has promised the residents of South Tel Aviv to expel the migrants, but he hasn't said when or to where, or whether he'll be among those going.
Details of the farce are delighting reporters and commentators in all but Israel's markedly right of center media. Bibi's zig zag doesn't seem likely to add to the criminal charges against him or Arye Deri, but neither will it stop investigations into other matters.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem