Netanyahu's image dented by migrant policy U-turn

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu angered supporters by agreeing to take in African refugees despite vowing for years to expel them.
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu angered supporters by agreeing to take in African refugees despite vowing for years to expel them.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Just a few weeks ago, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed almost invulnerable.

"King Bibi", as his supporters sometimes call him, enjoyed strong public support, even after the police recommended that he be indicted on criminal charges in two corruption cases.

The more media the media attacked him, the more his popularity surged.

Now, however, the constant pressure appears to be taking a toll on Israel's most powerful politician. Some fear he may have lost his touch.

In just 18 hours last week, Mr Netanyahu made three dramatic political U-turns that may have ruined much of his political standing.

First, in the middle of the Jewish holiday of Passover, he convened a special press conference last Monday to announce the signing of a deal with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Under the agreement, Western countries would take in half of the about 35,000 African migrants living in Israel, while Israel would grant refugee status to the rest.

That was a spectacular change in policy for a prime minister who for years had promised his followers that he would expel all African migrants, by force if need be.

Just a few hours later that night, Mr Netanyahu announced on his Facebook page that he had frozen the deal to "confer" with representatives of his own political base who were adamantly opposed to it.

The following morning, he annulled the agreement.

Some speculated that pressure from Berlin and Rome had forced Mr Netanyahu to back down.

The governments in Germany and Italy, which are also battling a resurgent right in a debate over migrants, were completely surprised by Mr Netanyahu's statement that they had agreed to take in African refugees. They quickly denied that Israel had ever discussed the matter with them.

It would have been a rare example of international pressure making Mr Netanyahu change his mind.

In the 1970s, then United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pointedly remarked that Israel had "no foreign, but only domestic, policy".

Mr Netanyahu would never risk the political backing of his supporters just because of criticism from abroad.

While overseas media coverage of the agreement with the UNHCR had focused on the fact that Israel was ridding itself of thousands of African migrants, Mr Netanyahu's supporters mainly noticed the second part of the deal.

It obliged Israel to accept one migrant for each one it sends abroad, granting them the right of residence and refugee status.

Mr Netanyahu's followers felt betrayed.

Pundits could hardly believe their own eyes and ears last Tuesday as they witnessed the viciousness with which the Prime Minister's former advocates turned on him.

The Israel Hayom newspaper ran a headline expressing outrage over his "nocturnal zigzag course".

Minister of Culture Miri Regev, Mr Netanyahu's most ardent supporter in the Cabinet, said she was "deeply worried about the concessions of a government that has abandoned its principles in immigration policy".

Mr Netanyahu's coalition partners threatened to leave the government.

Politically weakened, the Prime Minister saw no choice but to make another U-turn within hours - knowing that he would lose the next election should he come to be regarded as a "traitor" to Israel's nationalist camp.

As part of what appeared to be a tactical diversion, he blamed a small liberal non-governmental organisation, the New Israel Fund, for sabotaging Israel's foreign policy and pressuring Rwanda to abandon an earlier deal to take in migrants - a charge the group denied.

It remains unclear how the Prime Minister intends to solve his conundrum now.

It is not the first time Mr Netanyahu has disappointed his followers with a sudden change of heart.

Several years ago, he imposed a total building freeze in Israel's settlements, which enraged the settlers, only to begin building there again just as negotiations with Palestinians began.

At one point, he supported an obligatory military draft for ultra-orthodox Jews, only to revoke it a few months later.

Through all those travails, his supporters remained loyal to him. But it seems that this time, the crafty tactician made one reversal too many.

Even politicians from his own coalition have begun to whisper about new elections in January.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2018, with the headline 'Netanyahu's image dented by migrant policy U-turn'. Print Edition | Subscribe