Since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in February 2018 his plan to deport illegal migrants and asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda in exchange for financial assistance, the government has faced pressure from many segments of Israeli society. (See Fanack article Feb 2018). Advocacy groups working on behalf of the migrants challenged the plan in Israel’s high court, securing a temporary suspension of its implementation on 15 March. Holocaust survivors wrote open letters to the prime minster, and educators, doctors and American rabbinical organizations all expressed their dismay.
Unexpectedly, Netanyahu announced on 2 April a new plan drafted with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which seeks to send 16,250 migrants to Western countries, namely Canada, Germany and Italy, while providing residence permits to the remaining 16,250 in Israel. Migrants absorbed by Western countries will be allowed to work in Israel until they leave, while those who stay will be granted legal status, a visa and, ultimately, residency. Netanyahu insinuated that Rwanda had succumbed to pressure from the New Israel Fund (a US-based non-profit organization promoting equality and justice for all Israelis) and European Union figures, and had backed out of the original agreement. The prime minister claimed that he was left with no choice but to find an “even better solution” for the migrants.
Knesset members Michal Rozin and Mossi Raz of the left-wing Meretz party publicly praised the new plan, calling it “the finest hour and an undisputable success of the community of asylum seekers and Israeli society”. Other advocates, such as the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Physicians for Human Rights, Amnesty International Israel, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the African Refugee Development Center, also reacted positively.
However, not everyone was pleased, forcing Netanyahu to flip-flop again. He wrote in a Facebook post on 2 April that he would suspend the new plan until he had met with delegates from south Tel Aviv, where many African asylum seekers live. He also announced that Israel would set up a body to implement a “rehabilitation plan” for south Tel Aviv and encourage African migrants to move out of the area, in part by offering training in collaboration with UNHCR in solar energy, agriculture and irrigation. Larry Bottinick, the acting representative of UNHCR in Israel, said that one aim would be to train asylum seekers in sectors where they have a competitive advantage .
Explaining the second change of mind, Israeli commentator Ben Dror Yemini wrote, ‘[Netanyahu] did not have the support of his own people for this deal with UNHCR.’ Netanyahu’s core supporters indeed largely oppose letting in large number of migrants. He also neglected to share his plan with key members of his own Likud party and coalition allies. Minister of Education Naftali Bennet called Netanyahu’s deal to keep more than 16,000 migrants in Israel “a paradise for infiltrators”.
Netanyahu has caved in to pressure from his coalition and the media, leaving asylum seekers and the residents of south Tel Aviv in limbo and without a concrete plan for dealing with the asylum seekers in Israel.
The 39,000 refugees were deflated as their fate was pushed back and forth across the political divide. Demonstrations erupted, increasing the pressure on the government to find a solution. Ironically, the migrants now no longer face deportation, since Netanyahu’s deal with the UN effectively recognized them as refugees. This means they cannot be deported under international law and the recognition cannot be revoked. The collapse of the deal leaves them with no legal solution because they are all undocumented and Israel has no established process to determine the status of asylum seekers.
It is ironic that a country built on Jewish refugees has no policy to deal with refugees who are non-Jewish.