It took less than a day for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to move from proudly announcing an agreement with the United Nations to resettle some 39,000 African asylum seekers to then first freeze and ultimately cancel it. If he isn’t suffering from his own self-induced policy whiplash, observers such as the American Jewish Committee are — with several organizations first releasing press releases congratulating the prime minister for a job well done, only to condemn his about face less than 24 hours later.
Whatever your views on the asylum seekers issue, such dramatic and public indecisiveness is not good for Israel.
“This agreement will allow for the departure from Israel of 16,250 migrants to developed countries like Canada or Germany or Italy,” Netanyahu announced at a press conference on April 2. A similar number of migrants from Eritrea and/or South Sudan would have been granted temporary residency in Israel.
It was a seemingly workable agreement, good from Israel’s point of view in that it was apparently able to pressure the West and the usually hostile community of nations to take in the refugees. But in cutting those deals Netanyahu lost track of the more volatile internal hostility to the deal among his governing coalition partners, most of whom were not consulted; predictably, they immediately trashed it. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party and a contender for prime minister in the next election, was typical of the critics in his hyperbole. Bennett said the deal would turn Israel “into a paradise for infiltrators.”
Netanyahu buckled under the pressure.
Some say this incident reflects the weakness of Israel’s governing coalition structure, which empowers junior partners who can hold the prime minister hostage and prevent him from acting on pain of losing a vote of confidence. Others say the weakness is Netanyahu’s own. And they point out similar zigzagging in recent broken deals regarding egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and the installation of metal detectors on the Temple Mount. “The bottom line:” Likud Knesset member Oren Hazan tweeted, “A little public pressure and this ‘strong’ government has simply capitulated.”
But it also raises questions about the extent of Netanyahu’s power, notwithstanding his long tenure in office. There is concern that if he folds from political pressure over a relatively small number of African migrants, how can he stand up to coalition partners when the stakes are much higher? Netanyahu laid the blame for the collapse on the New Israel Fund, a left-leaning funder of Israel’s nonprofit sector. But that finger pointing was a distraction. Instead, we see a disturbing pattern: the migrant deal, the prayer deal, the metal detector plan — all accepted as fact by Israelis and by the international community, and then abandoned because of internal coalition pressure.
Reneging on deals sacrifices credibility. In each case it would have been better not to announce an agreement.