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(DW) Why did Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu scrap the African migrant deal?

Posted by: Semere Asmelash

Date: Tuesday, 03 April 2018

WORLD Date 03.04.2018

Why did Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu scrap the African migrant deal?

In a surprise move, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scrapped a deal with UN refugee agency UNHCR that would have seen thousands of African migrants relocated, while others would have stayed in Israel.

African migrants wear chains to represent slavery during a demonstration in Tel Aviv, Israel (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Scheiner)

African migrants took to the streets to protest in chains after Netanyahu retracted the relocation deal

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled the resettlement agreement with the United Nations on Tuesday, one day after he publicly announced and praised the deal at a press conference. Under this scheme, 16,000 African migrants, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan, would have been relocated to other countries while another 16,000 would have been allowed to stay in Israel.

But late on Monday, Netanyahu announced on his Facebook page he was suspending the deal after criticism from coalition hardliners and his nationalist voter base. They demand all migrants be expelled. 

On Tuesday, Netanyahu then went on to meet with residents of south Tel Aviv — an area where many African migrants live. Israeli residents there had voiced their anger, saying they felt slighted by the deal.

Deal 'bad for Israel'?
The leader of the nationalist Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett, had tweeted earlier on Tuesday the deal was "bad for Israel" and called on Netanyahu to cancel it completely.
"Its approval would cause generations of crying and determine a precedent in Israel granting residency for illegal infiltrators", he said.
Migrants and asylum seekers have repeatedly been called infiltrators by Israeli right-wing politicians.
Netanyahu had initially praised the UN deal, saying it was beneficial for both Israel and the migrants.
Or is the deal in Israel's interest?

The UNHCR expressed disappointment and urged Netanyahu to reconsider.

In an interview with DW, UN spokesperson William Spindler stressed the agreement was in Israel's interest. "We are still hopeful that a solution will be found for the asylum seekers who are in a very precarious situation in Israel," he said.

"It also is in the interest of Israel, because it will be able to fulfill its international obligations, but it will receive help from other countries. And the international community will also play a very important role in showing solidarity with Israel, taking some 16,000 of these refugees and asylum seekers," he added.

Spindler also said they had been sensitive to concerns by providing incentives for migrants to move out of Tel Aviv's neighborhood and to move elsewhere in Israel.

An African asylum seeker carries an Israeli flag during a protest against Israel's deportation policy outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, Israel (photo: picture-alliance/newscom)

Israel has presented African migrants with two options: either leave 'voluntarily' or face prison

"At the same time, a very important aspect of this agreement was that asylum seekers would not be sent back to places in Africa where they would not be safe," he said.

Around 37,000 African migrants are estimated to live in Israel — most of them are from Eritrea and Sudan. "They are not able to return to these countries, because they fear persecution, human rights violations or areas where they come from are in conflict," Spindler added.

The migrants' fate is now in limbo — after Netanyahu announced he was scrapping the deal, several African men protested in front of a government building in Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu bowing to pressure

It's not the first kind of backtracking on Netanyahu's part, says Ofer Zalzberg, Israel/Palestine Senior Analyst with the International Crisis Group.

"He miscalculated the degree to which there will be pressure from the hardliners. He had expected they will let this pass," he told DW. "When he saw they were mobilizing public opinion against it, he backtracked."

"We've seen him repeatedly aligning himself with the positions of primarily Naftali Bennett, the chairperson of the Jewish Home party, and Bezalel Smotrich, one of the hawkiest Knesset members of Jewish Home," the Jerusalem-based analyst added.

Zalzberg points to the case of Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot dead a wounded Palestinian man who was no longer a threat to him. He was prosecuted, which Netanyahu initially supported but changed tack as soon as Bennett started criticizing the punishment of Azaria, he added. 

There seems to be a pattern to this kind of behavior.

Domestic power play

"In the late 90s, when Netanyahu signed these interim peace agreements as part of the Oslo process, it was this that led to his toppling, meaning the national religious party at the time opposed this agreement and he lost power," Zalzberg explained.

"And what we've seen in the last years, almost ten years now, is as soon as politicians take hawkier positions than he does and oppose his policies, he embraces the positions of those to his right."

Israeli protesters raise signs and shout slogans as they demonstrate against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: Getty Images/J.Guez)

Netanyanhu is under fire for alleged corruption

"This helps him to survive politically. He has been doing this successfully for ten years now. So even if he loses some face, he stays in power," Zalzberg added.

Netanyahu's sudden decision to abandon the deal has been interpreted by some observers as a sign of political weakness. There has been speculation that he's distracted by ongoing investigations into alleged corruption.  

The scrapping of the deal "also raises questions about the degree to which one can rely on Israel when it negotiates deals," Zalzberg said.

Now, since the deal has been called off, everything is up in the air again — and at best, there will be renegotiations, he added. It's unclear whether Israel will now simply return to its former policy — to essentially force migrants who entered illegally to leave the country or face imprisonment.

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