Thousands take part in a March 24 protest in Tel Aviv against a plan to deport some 35,000 African asylum seekers.
Photo:

ABIR SULTAN/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
By

TEL AVIV—Israeli Prime Minister

Benjamin Netanyahu

on Tuesday ditched a deal with the United Nations to resettle thousands of African asylum seekers, in a swift about-face that shows the pressure he faces from his right-wing coalition partners.

Some 35,000 African migrants in Israel now face uncertainty over their fate after years of battling a plan to stend them back to Africa. The deal with the U.N. would have relocated thousands to Western countries, while allowing about half to stay in Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu

announced the plan on national television Monday afternoon, but froze it just a few hours later in a

Facebook

post—drawing criticism for his abrupt U-turn. On Tuesday morning, he announced he was completely canceling the deal.

“From time to time a decision is reached that has to be reconsidered,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement. He added that Israel would continue to search for a way to “remove the infiltrators.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s decision indicates the strong influence coalition partners have over the embattled Israeli premier as he faces multiple corruption investigations. His Likud party has 30 of his government’s 66-seat coalition and in an election his party could lose voters to parties to the right.

Israel’s African migrants, largely from Sudan and Eritrea, began coming to the country in 2005 before Israel completed a fence in 2013 on its border with Egypt. They say they came to the tiny Middle Eastern country to escape danger and persecution. Israeli leaders, however, say the majority are economic migrants, noting they passed through Egypt to reach wealthier Israel.

The U.N.’s refugee agency noted with “regret” Mr. Netanyahu’s decision, and said it believed a “win-win agreement that would both benefit Israel and people needing asylum is in everyone’s best interests.”

Opposition Leader

Isaac Herzog

said the decision reflected Mr. Netanyahu’s “weakness and hysteria” for bowing to right-wing pressure.

The African migrant community is highly concentrated in southern Tel Aviv, where some long-time residents of working-class neighborhoods, many of whom support Likud, have battled politically and legally against their presence.

Israel originally planned to offer migrants $3,500 to resettle in Rwanda, or face indefinite imprisonment in Israel.

In a late-night Facebook post Monday, Mr. Netanyahu said he made the deal with the U.N. only after Rwanda backed out of its agreement due to pressure from “elements of the European Union,” as well as the New Israel Fund, a liberal NGO that opposed the original plan. Rwanda has denied ever having a deal with Israel to resettle migrants.

The EU’s delegation to Israel hit back at Mr. Netanyahu’s accusation. “Guess it’s just one of those days,” the delegation wrote on

Twitter,

noting it had expressed approval for the deal at 9:46 PM, only to find Mr. Netanyahu blaming the EU for the deal by 10:50 PM.

Olivier Nduhungirehe, Rwanda’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, told Israel’s public broadcaster Tuesday morning that Mr. Netanyahu’s statement accusing his country of backing out of an agreement “changes the way Rwanda will have to react. We will respond accordingly.” He didn’t elaborate.

Before Mr. Netanyahu froze the plan on Monday, Israel’s education minister and head of the right-wing Jewish Home Party,

Naftali Bennett,

who is both a senior coalition partner and a political rival of the Israeli premier, said the deal “would turn Israel into a paradise for infiltrators.”

Two-thirds of the Jewish-Israeli public supported the government’s original plan to deport the migrants to African countries willing to absorb them, a February 2018 poll by the Israel Democracy Institute.

But some opponents of that plan hung banners across Tel Aviv quoting a biblical phrase: “You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.”

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