JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday canceled an agreement with the United Nations to resettle thousands of African migrants, caving in to pressure from hawks in his coalition who opposed the deal because it would allow many other migrants to remain in the country.
The startling turnaround drew heavy criticism from Netanyahu’s opponents and raised questions about the embattled Israeli leader’s decision making processes.
Netanyahu proudly announced the deal with the U.N. refugee agency in a nationally televised news conference on Monday, saying it would benefit Israel and the migrants. But after coalition hard-liners attacked him, he announced late in the evening that he was suspending the arrangement in order to consult with residents of south Tel Aviv. Veteran residents of the working class area, where the migrant population is concentrated, had felt slighted by the deal.
After meeting with residents on Tuesday, Netanyahu said he had weighed the pros and cons and he “decided to cancel the agreement.”
Nationalist allies who dominate Netanyahu’s coalition had harshly criticized the deal because it would allow thousands of Africans to remain in Israel.
Naftali Bennett, leader of the nationalist Jewish Home party, tweeted earlier Tuesday that the deal “is bad for Israel.”
“It’s not enough to suspend it. I call on the prime minister to cancel it completely. Its approval would cause generations of crying and determine a precedent in Israel granting residency for illegal infiltrators,” he said.
Netanyahu announced the deal on Monday after a plan to deport the migrants to an unnamed African country, presumed to be Rwanda, fell through.
Given the lack of choices, Netanyahu said his deal with the UNHCR was the best available option.
It called for resettling about half of the 35,000 African migrants in Israel to Western nations, while allowing the rest to remain in Israel. It also called for dispersing the migrant population throughout the country, and investing and rehabilitating Tel Aviv’s impoverished southern neighborhoods.
Dozens of migrants and their Israeli supporters protested the suspension outside Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem and government offices in Tel Aviv as he met with the neighborhood representatives.
Some protesters stripped to the waist, draped themselves with chains and taped their mouths shut at a protest in Tel Aviv. Others waved signs reading “Human lives are not to play with. Yes to the deal.”
Protester Daniella Elyashar called on Netanyahu to “stop this political game.” Another protester, Veronika Cohen, said “yesterday we were in tears of joy and this morning just in tears.”
Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay slammed the sudden turnaround on Army Radio questioning if defense decisions are also made in the same manner.
“It is sad, troubling and even a little scary that decisions are made that way,” Gabbay said. He accused Netanyahu of leadership based on polls and comments on social media.
Ahead of Tuesday’s cancellation, the UNHCR had urged Netanyahu to proceed with the agreement.
“We remain in close touch with the prime minister’s office and we continue to believe this is a win win agreement,” said UNHCR spokesman William Spindler in Geneva. “It benefits Israel, the international community and people needing asylum.”
Israeli commentators chided Netanyahu for folding to pressure and flip flopping on the issue.
Writing in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, Sima Kadmon noted Netanyahu’s decision “lasted for just six hours and 45 minutes” before “an important and courageous decision by the prime minister was trampled under the boots of the right wing divisions.”
Most of the African migrants are from war-torn Sudan and Eritrea, which has one of the world’s worst human rights records. The migrants say they are asylum-seekers fleeing danger and persecution, while Israeli leaders say they are merely job seekers.
The Africans started arriving in 2005 after neighboring Egypt violently quashed a refugee demonstration and word spread of safety and job opportunities in Israel. Tens of thousands crossed the porous desert border with Egypt before Israel completed a barrier in 2012 that stopped the influx.
Thousands of African migrants are concentrated in neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv, where ethnic food shops and phone card stalls line the streets, and the area has become known as “Little Africa.” Their presence has sparked tension with the working-class Jewish residents who have put pressure on the government to remove the Africans.
Residents complained the agreement doesn’t address their needs and demanded assurances that remaining migrants will be dispersed around the country as promised.
The prime minister’s turnaround threw into limbo the surprise agreement, which had finally offered a solution to an issue that has divided Israel for a decade. The deportation plan had been widely criticized at home and abroad, even by some of Israel’s closest supporters.