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Bowing to pressure, Netanyahu axes landmark UN migrant deal

African migrants pour out of the Holot Detention Centre in Israel's Negev desert after their release on August 25, 2015
Menahem Kahana (AFP)
'We hope that Israel will reconsider its decision soon,' the UNHCR spokesman said in response

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday cancelled a landmark migrant deal, caving to pressure from his coalition partners that would have seen thousands of asylum-seekers repatriated to “western countries” in exchange for thousands of others granted temporary status in Israel.

“After evaluating a new balance of advantages and disadvantages, I decided to cancel the agreement,” Netanyahu said speaking at a meeting with anti-migrant activists from south Tel Aviv, only twenty-four hours after announcing the deal with UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The prime minister said his decision came following talks with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, professionals and representatives of residents of South Tel Aviv.

“Despite the growing legal and international difficulties, we will continue to act with determination to exhaust all the possibilities available to us to remove the infiltrators,” adding that at the same time Israel would continue to seek “additional solutions.”

Urging Israel to rethink its annulment a UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said, “we continue to believe in the need for a win-win agreement that can benefit Israel, the international community and people needing asylum and we hope that Israel will reconsider its decision soon."

In an official statement released later Tuesday, the UNHCR expressed disappointment over the cancellation of an agreement that "was the result of discussions over an extended period of time, and reflected a shared effort to find a solution that gave international protection to people arriving in Israel fleeing war or persecution while also meeting the concerns of Israeli host communities."

Menahem KAHANA (AFP)

- Political flip-flopping -

On Monday night, in what appeared to be a resounding victory for asylum-seekers and activists, Israel said it would halt its controversial scheme to forcibly deport mainly Eritrean and Sudanese migrants to third party countries, widely believed to be Rwanda and Uganda.

The deal initially said that 16,250 of the some 38,000 African migrants will be resettled in various “developed” countries name dropped as Germany, Italy and Canada under the auspices of the UNHCR in exchange for thousands of others being granted temporary status in Israel.

It was set to be implemented in partnership with the UN into three stages over the next five years.

Netanyahu said Israel had to scrap the earlier plan because the option of sending them to a third country "no longer exists". He stressed that “legal constraints as well as political difficulties on the part of [Uganda and Rwanda” led to its cancellation. Rwanda on Tuesday denied all claims that a deal with Israel ever existed to begin with.

AFP

That plan, which gave migrants a choice between a one-time payment of $3,500 and a plane ticket out of Israel or indefinite incarceration, drew widespread condemnation, including from the UNHCR, which deemed it incoherent and unsafe.

Only hours after praising the Monday UNHCR deal as an “unprecedented” success at a press conference, in what appeared to be a short-lived turnaround, Netanyahu announced it’s suspension.

Leader of Jewish Home party and fellow coalition partner Naftali Bennett slammed the “bad agreement” and said it “would make Israel an infiltrator heaven.” Whilst the residents of south Tel Aviv, where the majority of African migrants have settled, released a statement calling the deal “a shame for the state of Israel.”

“I hear you, and especially the residents of south Tel Aviv,” he said in a Hebrew language Facebook post caving to political pressure. “For the time being, I am suspending the agreement,” he added, vowing to meet with Deri and the residents of south Tel Aviv the next day.

AP Photo/Oded Balilty

Following the meeting on Tuesday, and after hours of flip-flopping, Netanyahu announced that he was officially cancelling the deal.

Meanwhile dozens of migrants and their supporters protested outside Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv, in one of the many mass demonstrations against the plans since the initial deportation announcement in November 2017.

“The decision to establish the southern Tel Aviv Rehabilitation Administration will remain in force,” he added, referring to a pledge he had made to the residents of the area as part of the initial plan to cancel the deportation.

Many living in the area have expressed their support for the government’s highly-contested deportation policy, claiming there has been a deterioration in the conditions and security since the arrival of the asylum-seekers circa 2012.

“The director will begin her activity in the near future, in cooperation with the representatives of the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv,” Netanyahu concluded.

After a fleeting glimmer of hope, the fate of many asylum seekers now hangs in the balance.

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