One day after proudly announcing a UN agreement to resettle 16,000 asylum seekers, Netanyahu cancels the agreement due to criticism from the Right. And yet, the anti-deportation campaign can claim a victory.
Benjamin Netanyahu is in trouble.
With his announcement of the UN agreement regarding the African asylum seekers yesterday, and his announcement several hours later that the agreement had been suspended, Netanyahu made one thing clear: the Left’s anti-deportation campaign had won.
Deporting the asylum seekers to a “third country” in Africa is off the table. The only available option to alleviate the suffering of the asylum seekers and the residents of South Tel Aviv is a humane solution that combines giving asylum seekers formal status in Israel, dispersing the asylum seeker population to cities and towns around the country, resettling them in safe countries in the West, and massive government investment in revitalizing the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv. This is not exactly what the asylum seekers themselves, human rights groups, and anti-deportation activists demanded — but it is very, very close.
Netanyahu put the kibosh on the mass deportation plan his government initiated last December. Deportation to Rwanda, where almost no asylum seekers deported from Israel received formal status, from where almost all deported asylum seekers (with the exception of less than 10) fled — is no longer on the agenda, perhaps for good. Netanyahu’s cancelation of the agreement with the UN does not change this. The victory celebrations of the asylum seekers, aid groups, and activists yesterday were not premature.
However, the UN deal, which was without a doubt the best option for both sides in a game that is very much not zero-sum, was too left-wing for Netanyahu’s political base. Within hours of the deal’s announcement, Netanyahu found himself isolated, without support from his coalition partners. He suspended the deal, attempted to deflect the criticism by resorting to the usual slogans against the High Court, the UN and the New Israel Fund. The Right celebrated the deal’s suspension and forced Netanyahu to dig himself deeper into a hole by declaring his opposition to the agreement – which he had already signed, and which, just hours before, he had proudly stated was better than the (non-existent) deal with Rwanda. In the end, Netanyahu caved. By noon on Tuesday, he canceled the agreement all together.
Again, mass deportation of the African asylum seekers is off the table. The government has said previously that it cannot forcibly deport the Eritrean and Sudanese refugees back to their home countries (this would be a serious violation of international law). Now the government has admitted that it cannot deport them to a “third country” in Africa (in contradiction of the state attorney’s claims before the High Court two weeks ago). The Court also ruled that the government cannot indefinitely imprison the asylum seekers.
The sole alternative to the deal Netanyahu signed is a continuation of the status quo in one way or another, which means maintaining the asylum seekers’ temporary status — something Israel has become an expert in over the past 12 years. In other words: no mass deportations, but continued government efforts to force the asylum seekers to leave “voluntarily” by means of bureaucratic abuse, imprisonment for short periods of time, and departure grants to those who agree to leave. Perhaps dispersal of the asylum seeker population to cities around the country and reinvestment in south Tel Aviv will be added to the equation — as detailed in the UN deal — but without providing legal status to the asylum seekers or resettling them in other countries.
Absurdly, the Right’s opposition to the deal for being too soft on the asylum seekers means, in practice, that more of the asylum seekers will remain in the country — and under far more difficult circumstances: without health insurance or access to Israeli welfare services. Their suffering and impoverishment will, naturally, affect their Israeli neighbors.
Netanyahu is stuck between a rock and a hard place: between a good but “left-wing” solution to the refugee crisis and fidelity to his political base, which in practice means maintaining the status quo that is bad for everyone involved.
A few closing notes: the anti-deportation campaign’s victory is not just a judicial victory, but the result of successful international pressure on Rwanda. What made the campaign over the past several months successful was the critical mass generated by a combination of forces: grassroots organizing; massive demonstrations; public petitions; announcements by pilots and airport staff of their refusal to participate in the deportations; legal and parliamentary work; international pressure exerted by Jewish communities and others; independent journalistic investigations of the situation in Rwanda and Uganda; and the successful reversal of the narrative that the asylum seekers and the residents of South Tel Aviv have contradictory interests, and the articulation of demands that would benefit both sides.
The anti-deportation campaign won a rare victory yesterday — there is much to learn from it. Mainly, that we must continue to fight.
This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.