Netanyahu fixates on African migrants – but Likud has no policy

Despite the talks with Sudan and the fact that Netanyahu has repeatedly initiated discussion on the topic, Likud does not have an official policy on the matter.

An African migrant sits near the Old Central Bus Station in south Tel Aviv, Israel February 3, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
An African migrant sits near the Old Central Bus Station in south Tel Aviv, Israel February 3, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has brought up the issue of African migrants of his own initiative in repeated interviews in recent weeks, yet Likud does not have a platform on the issue.
Netanyahu gave an interview to the Al-Arab website on Saturday as part of Likud's efforts to attract Israeli Arab votes. He was asked about the Nation-State Law, a 2018 Basic Law that defines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, which many Israeli Arabs and Druse citizens saw as discriminatory.
The prime minister said the proposal came up "in connection to the danger of a flooding of illegal immigrants from Africa that flooded Israel. I built a fence that saved us all – and then I was told, if someone climbs the fence, he has an automatic right to be a refugee.
"So I decided to pass the Nation-State Law... It was not meant to be against any citizen within the [borders]," Netanyahu claimed.
Tens of thousands of African migrants, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, have entered Israel in the past 15 years Netanyahu has been prime minister for 12 of those years, and mostly succeeded in stemming the flow of migrants through Israel’s southern border.
About 31,000 migrants remain living in Israel, despite the government’s various attempts at convincing them to leave, including detention upon arrival and blocking access to part of their income until they depart – both of which the Supreme Court vetoed – and offering to pay them to leave.
WHEN LIKUD MK Avi Dichter, then of Kadima, and New Hope candidate Ze'ev Elkin, then of Likud, originally proposed the law in 2011, they focused on Palestinian and Israeli-Arab challenges to what it means to be a Jewish state. One example proponents of the bill gave repeatedly was the 2000 High Court ruling known as the "Kaadan case," which allowed an Israeli Arab couple to live in Katzir, a town built on land purchased by the Jewish Agency to promote Jewish settlement in Israel.
In 2015, Dichter said the law is important because "the Palestinians no longer hide their goal to erase the nation-state of the Jewish people... We hear in demonstrations and interviews that Palestinian leaders talk about eliminating the Jewish nation-state and demand to get all the land, from Metula to Tel Aviv to Beersheba to Eilat."
In a 2017 meeting of coalition leaders and a 2018 Likud faction meeting, Netanyahu pushed for the bill to pass without mentioning African migrants. He did, however, say in 2017 that “there is no contradiction at all between this bill and equal rights for all citizens of Israel.”
Netanyahu's address to the Knesset on the day the Nation-State Law passed in 2018 did not focus on illegal immigration or refugees, either – nor did anyone else's in the transcript provided by the Knesset.
“This is our state – the Jewish state," the prime minister said. "In recent years there have been some who have attempted to put this in doubt, to undercut the core of our being. Today we made it law: This is our nation, language and flag."
Netanyahu also raised the topic of African migrants in an interview with The Jerusalem Post this month, though he was not asked about it, expressing a concern that migrants would seek “fake conversions” to Judaism, by seeking to become Jewish through the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel.
“I put up a fence, you know,” he said. “They call it a wall. But I prevented the overrunning of Israel, which is the only first-world country that you can walk to from Africa. We would have had here already a million illegal migrants from Africa, and the Jewish state would have collapsed. The Jewish State, Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, would have collapsed.”
SINCE 2013, the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel have had a policy of not converting asylum seekers, foreign workers or anyone else without an A5 residency visa and Israeli ID number. Most of those seeking non-Orthodox conversion in Israel are descendants of Jews who are not themselves Jewish, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, a small number of Israeli Arabs, and non-Jews who marry Israeli Jews.
In recent months, with the advent of Sudan establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, Jerusalem and Khartoum negotiated about the possible return of thousands of migrants to Sudan. Netanyahu and the Sudanese Foreign Ministry said publicly that they discussed migration issues. Cabinet ministers said Sudan had agreed to a pilot plan to accept hundreds of migrants, at first.
Yet, on Sunday, more than one Israeli official said there was no progress on that front.
About 6,200 Sudanese migrants remain in Israel. The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an Israeli NGO, said about 4,400 of them are from the Darfur, Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions, in which there are continuing conflicts, and about 2,000 of the migrants from those regions have been granted “humanitarian status” by the Interior Ministry.
Despite the talks with Sudan and the fact that Netanyahu has repeatedly initiated discussion on the topic, Likud does not have an official policy on the matter. Likud does not have an election platform at all, and campaign representatives declined to answer questions from the Post on the matter.
In addition, Likud declined to respond to a survey by the Israeli Immigration Policy Center, which advocates for deporting migrants.
LABOR RESPONDED to the survey that it opposes illegal immigration and has a bill proposing to spread the migrant population so they are not an undue burden on economically weaker areas. In addition, the party called for swifter examination of requests for refugee status.
Yamina has a plan for responding to the "infiltration and immigration problem," which would include deporting migrants through promoting diplomatic relations with their home countries or arranging for third countries to accept them. In addition, the plan written by former justice minister Ayelet Shaked calls for illegal immigrants to be prosecuted under existing laws, among other policy proposals.
Blue and White called for Israel to implement a plan proposed by Netanyahu in 2018 – which he then withdrew due to political opposition – that would have had the UN arrange for most of the refugees to be resettled outside Israel and the rest to remain.
Meretz called for a "humane response to the distress of asylum-seekers," by canceling detentions and deportation, accelerating the examination of refugee status requests, granting work permits to asylum-seekers as well as welfare and health services, and promoting the agreement Netanyahu reached with the UN, among other policies.
New Hope is led by Gideon Sa'ar, who was the interior minister that instituted the Negev detention center for migrants. The party pointed out that there are many illegal immigrants from Ukraine and Georgia in Israel, as well as Palestinians illegally working and living in Israel. The party called to enforce existing laws and increase the number of immigration inspectors.
The Religious Zionist Party called to pass the Override Clause, which would allow the Knesset to re-pass laws struck down by the High Court. Then, the party says, the Knesset should re-pass laws sending migrants to detention centers and incentivize their departure to other countries.
Otzma Yehudit, one of the parties within the far-right Religious Zionist Party, has long called for migrants to be deported, and held an event on Saturday night with activists Shefi Paz and Doron Avrahami, “leaders of the struggle to expel the infiltrators from south Tel Aviv,” as the party called them.