The ultimate resolution of the fate of the more than 39,000 African migrants in Israel — described as “illegal immigrants,” and worse, by critics, and “asylum seekers” by advocates — remains to be seen. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision on Tuesday to cancel an agreement with the United Nations he heralded only the day before as “the best solution” to the vexing problem of the migrants’ status, is troubling and disappointing. Many questions remain, but several factors have become clear during a dramatic Passover week, with themes of exodus and liberation echoing from biblical times to today — and then put on hold, if not withdrawn altogether.
We learned from the prime minister’s actions the extent of his weakened political condition, due in large part to his being the subject of several ongoing corruption scandals. Only hours after announcing proudly on Monday “the best possible solution” to the crisis surrounding the fate of the African migrants, whom the government planned to begin deporting this week to several African countries, including Uganda and Rwanda, Netanyahu did a verbal U-turn. He stated that he was freezing the agreement just concluded between Jerusalem and the United Nations relief agency. It would have canceled the controversial deportations, and instead send about half of the African migrants to Western countries over the next five years and allow the rest to be given “temporary resident” status and remain in Israel but be resettled in different parts of the country; part of the deal was also to improve the dismal conditions in south Tel Aviv, where the migrants have settled. (Indeed, we sympathize with residents of south Tel Aviv, some of whom told our reporter Michele Chabin several weeks ago that they were afraid to leave their homes. But Israel is a prosperous country that can afford to absorb half of the African migrants and assimilate them more fully and humanely in different parts of the country, and afford to rehabilitate south Tel Aviv.)
But given the immediate outcry from key members of the government, it seems Netanyahu made the UN deal without consulting his coalition partners on the right who strongly favor deportation, as do most Israelis. Indeed, many residents of south Tel Aviv who blamed the neighborhood’s crime rate and social problems on the many African migrants among them cried foul. Netanyahu responded by saying Monday night he was putting the agreement on hold until he met with angry south Tel Aviv residents on Tuesday. At that Tuesday meeting, he pledged to residents his “determination to exhaust all possibilities at our disposal to remove the infiltrators.”
Ironically, it became clear from the prime minister himself that the solution he touted on Monday was far from the policy he favored and had carried out until now. The government has portrayed the African migrants as dangerous illegal aliens and threatened them with unlimited jail time if they did not accept deportation.
What forced Netanyahu’s hand, according to advocates for the African migrants, was the Supreme Court’s insistence that the government make public its plan for resettling the migrants in Rwanda before ruling on the case — and the lack of a detailed plan. Under pressure from liberal advocates, Rwanda pulled out of the deal. Only then did Jerusalem seek a more humane resolution involving wider international cooperation and a more benevolent attitude toward the migrants.
Now, in a worst-case scenario, the prime minister has reneged on the UN deal he signed and that was being praised widely outside of Israel; he appears to have revealed his true feelings about the migrants. (The parallels between Netanyahu and President Trump in nativist turns — one backing away from an agreement on African migrants and the other on a pledge regarding “Dreamers” — is striking.)
It may prove more difficult now, with increased international attention, for the government to go back to its hardline approach that sought to make life in Israel so difficult for the migrants that they would choose to leave. What happens to them now? What of the effort by their advocates to prevent deportation, which critics have described as a rejection of Jewish values and the biblical mandate to protect the stranger in one’s midst?
A few months ago, the efforts here and in Israel to have the deportations canceled seemed unimaginable, given the government’s position. Despite the latest, shocking setback, there is some comfort in noting how the migrants’ plight has been taken up by so many who have spoken out for compassion, despite all odds. It would have been fitting that in the week of Passover, those who set upon a long and treacherous path in search of freedom found renewed hope for the future. For now, that dream has been deferred, if not shattered.