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News Analysis: Netanyahu’s Reversal on Migrants Shows Influence of Hard-Line Allies

The deal with the United Nations refugee agency might have given Israel a bit of relief from international criticism of the latest violence along the border with Gaza, where Israeli forces killed at least 16 Palestinians on Friday during a mass protest against Israel’s longstanding blockade of the territory and in support of Palestinian claims to return to homes in what is now Israel.

Instead, it proved to be an international embarrassment.

Mr. Netanyahu’s latest troubles come at a time when he is already embroiled in multiple corruption scandals that could end up bringing down him and his government. But he still consistently ranks in polls as the most suitable candidate, by far, for the country’s top job and is already Israel’s second-longest-serving prime minister, after the state’s founder, David Ben-Gurion.

Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party and his coalition partners have so far stuck by him despite the growing list of corruption allegations again him. But the migrant deal — which took most of his partners in the government by surprise — riled some of his closest allies.

As has often happened in the past, Mr. Netanyahu changed direction in the wake of harsh criticism from Naftali Bennett, the education minister and leader the Jewish Home party. While the far-right Jewish Home is in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, it also competes with his Likud party for votes.

Bezalel Smotrich, a Jewish Home legislator, said in a radio interview on Tuesday that he would be willing to topple the government over the migrant issue.

“We want the state of Israel to remain a Jewish state,” he said. “And this means sticking to the right migration policy.”

Photo

African migrants and Israelis demonstrating on Tuesday outside the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. Credit Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Tal Schneider, the political correspondent for Globes, an Israeli financial newspaper, said of Mr. Netanyahu’s reversal: “It shows weakness.”

Mr. Netanyahu said he had made the deal with the United Nations high commissioner for refugees because it seemed the only way to reduce the population of African migrants in Israel, who number at least 35,000. The migrants, mostly Eritreans and Sudanese who surreptitiously crossed the border from Egypt before it was sealed in 2012, cannot be returned to their own countries under international conventions for fear of persecution.

The deal with the United Nations refugee agency was meant to replace a contentious Israeli plan to forcibly deport the migrants to Rwanda. That plan fell through because of legal obstacles and after Rwanda said it would accept only asylum seekers who left Israel voluntarily. Given the lack of options, Mr. Netanyahu apparently thought he would be able to sell the new plan to his supporters.

Mr. Netanyahu first trumpeted the deal on Monday in a live television broadcast, saying it was an extraordinary plan to resettle nearly half of Israel’s African asylum seekers in Western countries. A n equal number would have been granted legal status to stay in Israel. Several hours later, he suspended the deal, crumpling under the pressure from its opponents. By midday Tuesday, he had canceled it.

“Each year, I make thousands of decisions for the benefit of the state of Israel and its citizens. From time to time, a decision is taken that must be reconsidered,” Mr. Netanyahu said on Tuesday.

“Despite the growing legal obstacles and international difficulties, we will continue to act with determination to exhaust all the possibilities available to us to remove the infiltrators,” Mr. Netanyahu said, quickly falling back on the rhetoric of his base.

The United Nations refugee agency said it regretted Israel’s decision.

“U.N.H.C.R. continues to believe that a win-win agreement that would both benefit Israel and people needing asylum is in everyone’s best interests. And we encourage the government of Israel to consider the matter further,” the agency said.

William Spindler, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency in Geneva, said it found out about Mr. Netanyahu’s retreat only through a late-night post on his Facebook page.

Mr. Netanyahu appears to have burned bridges with Rwanda. Until this week, the Israeli government had not named Rwanda as the main African destination for migrants deported from Israel, only referring obliquely to a secret agreement with a “third country.”

But in his Facebook post on Monday night, Mr. Netanyahu identified the country as Rwanda, saying it had agreed to take in migrants who had been deported from Israel without their consent, but then capitulated under outside pressure. In response, Rwanda’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Olivier Nduhungirehe, told Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan Radio, on Tuesday that Rwanda had never agreed to take in the asylum seekers, either in writing or orally, adding that Mr. Netanyahu’s Facebook post “changes the way we should respond.”

To many in Israel, opposition to the United Nations plan makes little sense because all the migrants will remain in Israel, and in limbo, for the foreseeable future.

Daniel B. Shapiro, a former United States ambassador to Israel, commended Mr. Netanyahu on Twitter for the migrant deal soon after it was announced. But he then wrote in a subsequent post: “I guess I have to eat my words. Advocates for Israel like me will have a hard time explaining reneging on a signed international agreement. And the crisis facing Israel and its asylum seekers remains unaddressed, helping no one.”

Source: NYT > World

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