Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, announced yesterday he had reached a deal with the UN to resettle thousands of African asylum seekers only to u-turn within hours after a rebellion by his own ministers.
The Israeli leader said on Monday afternoon that he had struck an international agreement under which around half of the 40,000 asylum seekers in Israel would be sent to Western countries like Canada, Germany and Italy.
Under the terms of the deal, the Israeli government agreed to let the other half stay in the country and to scrap controversial plans to deport them to other nations in Africa.
But just hours after Mr Netanyahu announced the deal with great fanfare, calling it an “unprecedented common understanding” with the UN, he was forced to retreat in the face of angry backlash.
Several senior ministers denounced the agreement and Right-wing activists from within his political base said it was too generous to the asylum seekers who would be allowed to stay. “For the time being, I am suspending the agreement,” Mr Netanyahu said shortly before midnight.
Most of the asylum seekers in Israel are from Eritrea, an authoritarian east African state where men are often conscripted into the military for life, while a smaller number are from Sudan, including the war-torn Darfur region.
The deal with the UN allows Mr Netanyahu to scrap the Israeli government’s original plan to give asylum seekers a choice: stay in Israel and face indefinite imprisonment or accept $3,500 from Israeli authorities and agree to go to a “third country” like Rwanda or Uganda.
That plan was met with protests by liberal Israelis and was widely condemned by human rights groups. Activists warned that sending the asylum seekers who left would likely end up facing torture and extortion in Libya and possible death by drowning in the Mediterranean.
Many of the asylum seekers said they would choose prison rather than going back to Africa and Israeli officials privately about the logistical challenges of jailing such a large population.
But Mr Netanyahu had also been under pressure from parts of the Israeli public to remove the asylum seekers, especially from neighbourhoods in south Tel Aviv where they were highly concentrated and resented by some residents.
Mr Netanyahu said he had reached an “unprecedented common understanding” with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) over the fate of the asylum seekers.
"The agreement stipulates that for each migrant who leaves the country, we commit to give temporary residence status to another," he said.
The Israeli government said the original plan had been abandoned "because of legal considerations and diplomatic difficulties concerning third-party countries."
“I am excited because they cancelled the deportation,” said Tesfazgi Asgodom, a 34-year-old man who fled from Eritrea in 2011 to avoid military conscription, after the initial deal was announced.
The agreement was immediately attacked by the most Right-wing members of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition government.
Naftali Bennett, the education minister leader of the Jewish Home party, said the deal would encourage other migrants to come to Israel and turn the country “into a paradise for infiltrators”.
He said the agreement was “a total surrender to the false campaign that has been disseminated in the media”. The influx of asylum seekers to Israel began in 2005 and tens of thousands of people arrived before 2012, when Israel built a wall on its southern border with Egypt which has reduce the numbers of people arriving.
Israel argues that the overwhelming majority of the arrivals are economic migrants and it is under no obligation to give them refugee status. Since 2015, Israel has granted asylum to just four Eritreans out of 6,723 - an acceptance rate of 0.06 per cent.
Figures for the first three quarters of 2017 show that Britain granted asylum to 1,484 out of 1,871 Eritreans - an acceptance rate of 79 per cent.