Analysis

'Zigzagger': Netanyahu's reversal on African migrants draws scorn

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu killed a deal that would have helped solve the country’s African migrant crisis, leading to criticism from his opponents and uncertainty for thousands of asylum seekers, Derek Stoffel writes from Tel Aviv.

While there have been protests supporting Africans, most Israelis want them deported, survey suggests

African migrants wait in line to visit Israeli immigration officers at an office outside Tel Aviv. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

The flip-flop by Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, killing an agreement to resettle thousands of African asylum seekers to Western nations, appeared to shock the United Nations and the international community. 

But the reversal shouldn't be all that surprising.

While Israel has struggled for years with the moral question of what to do with nearly 40,000 African migrants living here, their supporters within the Jewish state are a minority, polling suggests.

And the man behind the capitulation — Prime Minister Netanyahu — has a history of changing his mind in the face of public pressure. He shelved plans for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall last summer and then backed down on placing metal detectors at a holy site, both in Jerusalem's Old City.

It seems Netanyahu is more willing to risk one or two news cycles as a flip-flopper than to alienate his base by protecting thousands of asylum seekers from Africa. His position led the left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz to write: "What we saw in the last 24 hours is a parody of a prime minister."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced an agreement with the UN's refugee agency on African migrants on Monday. He killed it a day later. (Reuters)

Israel's government views the Africans not as asylum seekers but as economic "infiltrators" in the country, illegally looking for work. The authorities began handing out notices of deportation earlier this year, giving thousands of African men a stark choice: be deported to an African nation with a cheque for $3,500 US or be sent to an Israeli prison.

The plan was halted temporarily last month by Israel's Supreme Court, which put pressure on the government to find a solution.

On Monday afternoon, Netanyahu announced an "unprecedented understanding" with the UN's refugee agency that would settle 16,250 asylum seekers in Western countries. The prime minister mentioned Canada as one possible destination. 

The migrants and their supporters celebrated news of the deal with the UN, with one refugees advocate calling it "a great relief" that will "save the lives of people."

African asylum seekers living in Israel attended a protest against the government's deportation plan in February. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

More controversially, however, the plan would have also allowed another 16,250 asylum seekers to remain in Israel.

Catching many in the prime minister's right-wing coalition government off guard, politicians and anti-immigration activists took to social media to denounce Netanyahu's deal.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who also leads the far-right Jewish Home party, denounced the agreement on Twitter, saying it "will turn Israel into a paradise for infiltrators." He called on the government to return to the original deportation plan, which he called "moral and fair."

Opposition to the agreement also came from residents of South Tel Aviv, where thousands of African migrants now live. Israelis who live in the area say they've changed the makeup of their neighbourhood, and many want the Africans out.

Israeli residents of South Tel Aviv say an influx of Africans has changed the nature of their neighbourhood. Many back the government's deportation plans. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

"Yes, they should go," said Yosef Masiach, who lives in South Tel Aviv. "At night here, it's like Harlem."

Earlier this year, Masiach told CBC News: "The migrants are problematic; they don't have enough work, so they cause trouble for us here."

Netanyahu met with community representatives in Jerusalem on Tuesday, and killed the agreement with the UN just hours later, after "reevaluating the advantages and disadvantages" of the deal.

"Despite the growing legal and international limitation, we will continue to act to work with determination to exhaust all possibilities at our disposal to remove the infiltrators," the prime minister continued.

UN to Israel: reconsider deal

The United Nations expressed "disappointment" with Netanyahu's decision to scrap the deal, urging the prime minister to reconsider.

"UNHCR continues to believe that a win-win agreement that would both benefit Israel and people needing asylum is in everyone's best interests," said a statement from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. 

The asylum seekers have enjoyed support from many Israelis, who have held several large protest rallies in Tel Aviv, demanding they be allowed to stay. 

A large demonstration was held in Tel Aviv in February to protest against the government's deportation plans. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Holocaust survivors wrote the prime minister, urging him to "do the Jewish thing" and allow the Africans to remain. "Only you have the ability to make a historic decision and show the world that the Jewish state will not allow the suffering and torture of people under its protection."

But an opinion poll done earlier this year suggested 69 per cent of Jewish Israelis backed the government's deportation plan, with 60 per cent of respondents dismissing the idea that Israel, the state where the Jewish people sought refuge from persecution, should show greater generosity to asylum seekers than other groups.

'Slap in the face'

Netanyahu's reversals drew condemnation from opposition parties. Michal Rozin, a Knesset member from the left-wing Meretz party, calling the prime minister "a coward, a zigzagger."

"This is a slap in the face to international agencies, to the residents of southern Tel Aviv and to asylum seekers," she said.

For the asylum seekers, it's been a week of whiplash developments that once again left their futures in deep uncertainty.

"It's a serious decision for the continuation of our lives," said Muluebrhan Mesgna, who came to Israel seven years ago to escape the authoritarian regime in Eritrea. "I'm very sad now."

Muluebrhan Mesgna, an asylum seeker originally from Eritrea, has lived in Israel for seven years. He attended a protest in February. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Mesgna was given a notice of deportation in February. Rather than risk being returned to Africa — where he fears he would eventually be sent to Eritrea, possibly to face a prison sentence for evading national military service — Mesgna said he'd rather be jailed in Israel.

The 30-year-old works up to seven days a week in the kitchen of a Tel Aviv restaurant. He lives with his wife in a small one-bedroom apartment in the suburb of Petah Tikva.

While Mesgna says he has felt welcomed by some Israelis, the same cannot be said of the government.

"We are in fear. We are afraid that they want to deport us, or imprison us."

About the Author

Derek Stoffel

CBC News Middle East correspondent

Derek Stoffel is the Middle East correspondent for CBC News. He has covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war and covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.