JERUSALEM • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is cancelling a deal with the United Nations refugee agency to relocate thousands of African migrants, bowing to right-wing pressure.
The agency, the UNHCR, yesterday said it hoped Israel would reconsider the decision soon and offered to work with it to identify and "respond to the protection needs" of asylum seekers in the country.
Mr Netanyahu's critics seized on his backtracking on the agreement - under which thousands of other migrants would have won the right to remain in Israel - as a sign of political weakness. He is the subject of police probes into suspected corruption, which he denies, in the greatest challenge to his career yet.
For the estimated 37,000 African migrants in Israel, most of them from Eritrea and Sudan, a whirlwind of announcements about their future has swept their status even deeper into limbo.
Outside a government complex in Tel Aviv yesterday, where Mr Netanyahu said he was scrapping the deal, several African men wrapped themselves in chains in a protest that put their sense of powerlessness on display.
On Monday, Mr Netanyahu announced live on television an arrangement with the UNHCR that would have relocated about 16,250 migrants to Western countries.
But the fact that thousands more would be allowed to stay raised an outcry from right-wing politicians and on social media from Mr Netanyahu's nationalist voter base, which wants the migrants expelled. He then posted on Facebook that he was putting the agreement's implementation on hold.
By yesterday, the deal was dead.
"I have listened carefully to the many comments on the agreement. As a result, and after I again weighed the advantages and disadvantages, I decided to cancel the deal," said a statement from the Prime Minister's office, quoting Mr Netanyahu.
He made the remarks at a meeting with representatives of residents of south Tel Aviv, a poor area that has attracted the largest migrant community and where many of its inhabitants want the Africans out.
Before announcing the deal with the UN, Israel had been moving ahead with plans to deport many of the Africans to Rwanda. But the Supreme Court intervened, freezing such deportations, and Mr Netanyahu said Rwanda had buckled to international pressure and reneged on the deal.