Updated 6:45 p.m.
Only hours after the Israeli government reached an agreement with the United Nations over its plan to deport thousands of African asylum-seekers while allowing thousands more to stay, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Facebook that the plan was being suspended.
Netanyahu wrote that he would be meeting on Tuesday morning with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and residents of south Tel Aviv, where many of the migrants have congregated. “In the meantime, I’m suspending the implementation of the agreement, and after I meet with the [neighborhood] representatives, I will bring the agreement for reconsideration,” he wrote.
Netanyahu’s government had originally intended to deport almost all of the migrants, most of whom come from Eritrea and Sudan, to Rwanda. But the plan was stymied by widespread public opposition within Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, before Rwanda pulled out of the agreement and the country’s Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.
Under the new plan announced by Israel and the United Nations on Monday, around 16,000 of the estimated 40,000 Africans would be transported by the U.N. High Commission on Refugees to other Western countries, while those allowed to remain would be given temporary residency for five years and encouraged to move outside of Tel Aviv.
The new plan received almost immediate criticism from the Israeli right, with Education Minister and Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett claiming that the move “will turn Israel into a paradise for infiltrators.”
Netanyahu posted a video to his Facebook account on Monday defending the U.N. deal, calling it a “better agreement” than the one with Rwanda. He announced that he was suspending implementation of the deal less than three hours later.
The backtrack was criticized by many Jewish groups who had praised the announcement earlier in the day.
“I was stunned. Absolutely stunned,” the CEO of the refugee advocacy group HIAS, Mark Hetfield, told the Forward. “It was so obvious that what he announced earlier today was the common sense, right thing to do. And he gets criticism for it from Bennett and a few others and he does an immediate about-face. I’m just hoping he gets a good night’s sleep and realizes he needs to stick with his plan.”
Hetfield claimed that other countries who may have partnered with Israel on immigration issues “now can’t help but question the reliability of Israel as a partner.” He also noted that Israel’s current asylum policies, which reject nearly all African applicants, “fall far short of international standards….[Netanyahu] was finally on a course to right that, and he fell off the tracks today.”
“We are disappointed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pulled back on implementing the deal announced earlier today on African asylum seekers,” a spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement. “We urge him to move ahead and implement the original U.N. plan. There’s no other alternative but to find an ethical and humane approach to resettle with the tens of thousands of refugees whose lives hang in the balance.”