Netanyahu's Incredible Flip-Flop on African Migrants

First he planned to deport 40,000 people from Israel. Then he backed off. And now…?

African migrants during a protest in Tel Aviv in January (Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)

Updated April 3 at 10:05 a.m. EST

Benjamin Netanyahu made two major announcements on Monday, completely reversing his administration’s policy on the roughly 40,000 African asylum-seekers in Israel—twice. First, the Israeli prime minister declared that he had scrapped a plan to deport these migrants to third-party countries such as Rwanda or Uganda, instead taking in as many as 16,000 and routing 16,000 more for resettlement in Western countries through the United Nations refugee agency. The decision followed months of massive protests against the proposed forcible removals, which were formally announced earlier this year, and a court ruling that had temporarily halted the deportation plan.

But then, hours later, Netanyahu appeared to renege, despite having apparently signed an international agreement with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. On Facebook, he wrote that Rwanda had “folded” from its previous agreement to take in refugees due to pressure from the European Union and a liberal American advocacy group, the New Israel Fund. This was why he had made the new agreement, he wrote. “However, I am attentive to you, and first to the people of South Tel Aviv,” he said, referring to the neighborhood where most of the African migrants are concentrated. “That’s why I decided to meet with the Interior Minister, Aryeh Deri, with the representatives of [South Tel Aviv] tomorrow morning. In the meantime, I’m suspending the implementation of the agreement.” On Tuesday in Israel, he announced that he would be permanently cancelling the agreement, which his government had called “unprecedented” just one day ago.

This double reversal, concerning one of the biggest political issues in Israel in recent months, is a rare public display of weakness from Netanyahu, and a sign that he is feeling immense strain from the right wing of his coalition. It’s also an extreme example of how perilous the politics of migrants and refugees can be, trapping national leaders between the pressures of domestic politics and the demands of the international community.

Israel’s political left has been rallying aggressively around this issue for months, and the government’s initial announcement was a victory for activist groups—and for left-leaning immigration groups across Europe. Israeli groups ranging from secular activists to Orthodox rabbis argued that Israel’s treatment of African migrants—many of whom crossed through the Sinai desert to reach Israel from war-torn Eritrea or Sudan—compromised Israel’s moral and religious integrity. The deportations had been scheduled to begin around the start of Passover, the holiday that memorializes ancient Israelites’ slavery in Egypt and their ensuing exodus, also through the Sinai—poor timing for government-PR purposes.

When Israel initially announced its policy reversal, progressives celebrated the Jewish symbolism. “It’s remarkable that this victory happened over Passover—the holiday of liberation,” said Daniel Sokatch, the CEO of the New Israel Fund, in an emailed statement. “Today, we have shown that our power as a civil society—the power of each of us standing up for what is right, and joining together to press for change—is stronger than the power of the cruel and fearful few.”

The Prime Minister’s Office presented the initial agreement in terms that seemed designed to placate the right, saying it “will allow for a larger number of migrants to leave Israel than the previous plan, and under the auspices of the UN and the international community.”

Yet members of Netanyahu’s coalition seemed to recognize that the new plan might make the government seem hypocritical. The prime minister has consistently referred to the African migrants who have arrived in Israel since 2006—roughly 40,000 people in a country of  8.5 million—as “infiltrators,” claiming they were not refugees or asylum-seekers, but economic migrants looking for work. The country did not process more than a few asylum applications each day despite a massive backlog of requests. Many of those seeking asylum waited for years to hear back about their status. This created a kind of self-fulfilling policy: The government could claim there were barely any refugees because it had not processed refugee-status applications.

Monday’s first announcement revealed this as a bureaucratic fiction, since it seemed to tacitly acknowledge that there were refugees among the migrants, after all. The new plan made significant concessions to the requests of left-wing organizers, including a promise to provide the migrants with job training and distribute them across Israel. Until now, the migrants have largely been concentrated in one neighborhood of Tel Aviv, and the resulting crowding and noise have been a significant source of local tension.

“The authenticity of the Israeli Government is here on the line,” wrote Naftali Bennett, the minister of education and diaspora affairs who leads the right-wing Jewish Home party, on Twitter. “In signing this agreement, we deliver a dangerous message to the whole world: The person who successfully infiltrates Israel wins the reward of residency here or in a Western state.”

Netanyahu seems to have heard that message loud and clear. His second Facebook message about the migrants came roughly three hours after he announced the new plan, suggesting that he would not immediately move forward with the international agreement, presumably made with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Guess it’s just one of those days,” tweeted the account @EUinIsrael, which represents the European Union delegation in the country:

Sokatch was outraged. “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has once again resorted to lies about the New Israel Fund in order to score cheap political points,” he wrote in a statement. “It is pathetic, shameful, and a stain on Israel in the global arena that the Prime Minister would blame Israel’s human-rights defenders for his ineptitude and his immoral policies.”

The suddenness of Netanyahu’s first announcement, and the speed with which he caved to pressure from the right, are uncharacteristically sloppy moves for a politician known for his savvy maneuvering. The openness with which his closest allies criticized him underscores his politically delicate position, as he faces intense negative press for his alleged involvement in several bribery incidents.

But more broadly, the flip-flop shows just how difficult it is for politicians in Western countries to negotiate a migrant crisis without getting burned. Even wealthy countries that initially threw open their doors to asylum-seekers at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, from Germany to Sweden, have experienced intense backlash from angry citizens, and are are now experimenting with immigration controls and deportations. In the United States, the president continues to call for a border wall to keep out Mexican immigrants, which was one of his most effective methods for reaching a right-wing base of voters.

Netanyahu’s initial reversal seemed to be an unexpected, rare victory for a left-leaning movement. In this case, internal politics seem to have derailed Israel’s latest experiment in managing its migrants. The left, and the asylum-seekers it champions, will have to wait to declare victory.