Among the litany of promises made by right-wing politicians over the last few months in anticipation of new elections, the coalition has moved quickly and vocally to call for the expulsion of the nearly 37,000 asylum seekers in Israel, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, promising cash payments to those willing to be sent to a designated, supposedly safe third country. Those who refuse to voluntarily comply will, according to the authorities, be incarcerated and then involuntary deported with far less of a financial incentive. Always a contentious subject, the government’s plans to smoothly carry out these deportations have hit a snag in an unanticipated campaign from various quarters of Israeli society that, under different circumstances, might simply have looked aside.
The reaction against the plan has proven to be simultaneously predictable and surprising. Certainly, the plurality of NGOs, left-wing politicians, intellectuals, academics, and asylum seekers themselves could be relied upon to come out strongly against the government’s decision, as they have, for years, been vocal in discussing its negligence and mismanagement of the issue. Yet, support for the asylum seekers has also come from unexpected sources, including El Al pilots who refuse to fly these individuals against their will to third countries, a number of prominent Israeli CEOs and tech entrepreneurs, and former Supreme Court Justices. Just days ago, close to four thousand came out to protest in Jerusalem, hardly a bastion of left-wing sentiment, in a show of solidarity, Holocaust survivors have condemned the government’s decision to send asylum seekers to countries where their lives will be endangered. And ordinary citizens including a group of rabbis have promised to shelter asylum seekers in their homes, in defiance of the authorities. The culmination of pressure against the initiative seems to have shaken Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister and Shas leader Aryeh Deri enough they have felt the need to react defensively, whether in denouncing naysayers as liars trying to derail the government’s efforts or else scaling back the level of action, either as a promise to refrain from deporting women, children, and married men, or an arrangement between Israel and the UNHCR that will see some asylum seekers sent to a third country in which their safety is assured, while settling the rest in Israel. Rwanda’s government, supposedly an initial third state to which the asylum seekers were to be sent (a location since revealed through the testimony of numerous individuals, to be a highly problematic destination) has been so thoroughly embarrassed by the incident, the Minister of State in the Foreign Ministry publicly stated that it would not accept anyone sent to the country by force. If Netanyahu had anticipated any blowback to these actions, this certainly wasn’t it.
Despite being bombarded for years with information detailing the dangers of these individuals–the right never having missed an opportunity to label them infiltrators and insist on their coming to Israel purely on economic grounds–the overwhelming majority of Israelis have likely never met a single Eritrean or Sudanese individual, much less interacted with one in any substantial manner. The obvious reason for this is that asylum seekers reside, both figuratively and literally, on the fringes of Israeli society; concentrated in south Tel Aviv, which has historically been an economically marginalized area, they have been forced to take low-paying jobs shunned by most Israelis in order to make due, while the authorities looked on, intervening only to cynically stir up xenophobia among the area’s long-time residents in order to reap political dividends.
Israelis have been successful, likely out of a sense of both apathy and willful ignorance, to remove the discussion of subjects such as the occupation and the Palestinians more broadly, having convinced themselves that for the time, being, there is little to be done in ameliorating the present situation. Such behavior is not primarily or even mostly derived from ideological concerns; the last two decades have convinced large swathes of the public that even seemingly existential issues like the fate of the West Bank and settlements can simply be shunted aside to be dealt with at an unknown date in the future.
Which makes the concern for the fate of the asylum seekers so surprising. Ostensibly, it should have been easy to ignore a subject that, while controversial, was well out of the daily purview of most Israeli citizens, and would not, in the grand scheme of things, affect their everyday lives. But the plight of a group of people residing in the Jewish state on the verge of being expelled and sent to a precarious future seems to have touched many people in a way that other hot-button topics, including separation of powers, freedom of speech, and independence of the courts, have not. Issues pertaining to war and terrorism are hardly abstract matters, immediately impacting the lives of nearly every citizen, yet it’s this subject that has proven for many people normally inured to the conflict to be a red line.
Of course, the episode hasn’t run its course, and there’s no saying what Netanyahu will do in order to save face–especially in light of the police’s decision to recommend a corruption indictment against him, and the press surrounding the recent skirmish involving an Iranian drone which will likely take up a lion’s share of attention in the short-term. Yet the mere fact the government has reacted at all defensively should be heartening to those who believe that, ultimately, domestic pressure is key in affecting change and replacing the current administration. Despite the constant warnings over the years that civil society in Israel has shriveled to a core group of leftist activists in Tel Aviv screaming into an increasingly authoritarian void – always a ridiculous exaggeration to be sure, but one that even some of the most even-keeled observers have taken to believing in the face of today’s political realities – the resistance against this plan has shown that, whether ultimately successful or not, the government cannot simply do as it pleases in the face of public opprobrium.
Most telling about this entire affair is the fact that the bulk of criticism leveled at the government has not come from external actors from the EU, the U.S., or various NGOs operating outside the confines of Israel, nor have petitions with angry denunciations by celebrities or renowned personalities been circulated in The Guardiancalling on the international community to put pressure on the Israeli government to change course. Part of this reaction is hardly coincidental; most Western countries have continued to struggle with the issue of immigration and the rise of right-wing populist leaders proposing unrealistic solutions, likely tempering the ability or desire to harshly criticize Israel’s actions. Instead, most of the backlash has come from either various sectors in Israeli society, or Jewish groups, particularly in the United States, deeply troubled by what is viewed to be a basic betrayal of Israeli’s raison d’etre as a safe haven, and a slap in the face of Jewish wartime history that saw their grandparents and great-parents met with hostility or indifference in the face of open annihilation.
On matters pertaining to anti-democratic legislation, for example, much if not most of the criticism leveled at successive coalitions over the years has come from Western allies perturbed at the state’s eroding of democratic norms. Yet in this case the most cutting criticism has all come from those parties who might have been expected to acquiesce to the government’s actions. When opposition is internal, and is notably notmonopolized by those sectors of society which are expected to scream the loudest, it becomes much more difficult for Netanyahu and his cohorts to employ demagogic tactics effectively. Usually content to attack left-wing groups and their ‘enablers’ in the EU, Netanyahu has deployed his nuclear option, claiming that Jewish billionaire and philanthropist George Soros has been responsible for the campaign to stay the government’s hand. This isn’t the first time Netanyahu has resorted to attacking Soros as a puppet master undermining the state’s well-being through the use of endless funding, nor is he currently the only party demonizing the latter as a manipulative and scheming troublemaker. But Bibi’s perverse decision to resort to such ugly tactics, while disturbing, is also a sign of his desperation in failing to find and exploit a perpetrator on whom he can foist his problems. It is difficult at this point in time to see how this whole affair will end; a first wave of deportations may,unfortunately, be carried out in near future, which will (at least, for the time being) refrain from targeting the most vulnerable parts of the population. With the coalition on the defensive, the left and its allies may be able to utilize the lessons learned from Netanyahu’s vulnerability in order to continue to embarrass the government and stave off much of its initial plans. Netanyahu’s clumsy handling of the issue and his willingness to seemingly make concessions in the face of public resistance is further proof that the prime minister is neither invincible nor is the right’s ability to easily push through its agenda assured.
Guy Frenkel is a Contributing Writer for IPF's Matzav. He is an Israeli political analyst specializing in self-determination issues. Frenkel has previously worked with Blue White Future and Partners for Progressive Israel. Frenkel holds an MA in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is currently based in the New York City area.