Why Netanyahu’s flip-flopping endangers Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caved under light pressure from the Israeli right and canceled an agreement he'd just reached with the UN on African immigrants.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a news conference at his office in Jerusalem, April 2, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.
Ben Caspit

Ben Caspit


Topics covered

migrant workers, african immigrants, immigration, immigrants, israeli police, benjamin netanyahu

Apr 4, 2018

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened an extraordinary press conference in his chambers with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri on April 2. He presented to the Israeli public a dramatic agreement signed between Israel and the UN that is supposed to regulate migrant workers, tens of thousands of whom have entered Israel in the last decade from the African continent.

Netanyahu departed from his custom by allowing questions without setting a time limit, determined to convince the Israeli public of the agreement’s necessity and advantages. Israel had signed on the dotted line after all the other solutions failed. Rwanda reneged on its agreement with Israel (Rwanda officials claimed no agreement was signed), in which the country had agreed to absorb the illegal immigrants, and the Israeli leadership was left without any alternative. Netanyahu knew that he was right. It was a display of leadership and charisma by a prime minister who made an executive decision and resolved a long and tiresome saga with an agreement that was the lesser of two evils, even according to his political base.

But after not much more than four hours later, the prime minister announced on Facebook that he was “suspending” the agreement and would re-examine its advisability. He must have worked on it all night, because by the next day he announced that the agreement was null and void. The negotiating marathons by National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and Chief of Staff Yoav Horowitz were dumped into the dustbin of history as Netanyahu got scared and ran. The UN’s refugee agency could hardly believe it was all happening.

Netanyahu was scared off by minor political difficulties: criticism from right-wing circles. There was no danger to Israel’s strategic interests, no new data that had came to light, yet Netanyahu choked. The social networks raged, orange emojis of anger peppering his Facebook page as Netanyahu regretfully shed the last vestiges of leadership and responsibility, and trail-blazing. Two tweets — one by his right-wing nemesis Education Minister Naftali Bennett and the other by his own party’s Gideon Saar — pummeled the prime minister into putty. It turned out that Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and other Likud ministers were also less than enthusiastic about the agreement, but Netanyahu was elected to blaze new paths, to make important decisions and then mobilize political support for them.

This sequence of events was not the first of its kind for the prime minister. It raised doubts about the decision-making process that evidently prevails in the court of Israel’s prime minister: chaotic, rushed, muddled. The press conference Netanyahu cobbled together followed five days of him hiding from the public. Rumors flew about a mysterious illness. Netanyahu’s rivals claimed that he had mentally fallen apart under the pressure of the investigations and the knowledge that he would soon be forced to face criminal charges in court. The gossip mill had been churning for months after the Netanyahus' longtime lawyer, Yaakov Weinroth, explained in an interview how he also functioned as psychologist for the couple when they had anxiety attacks.

While we may never know what prompted this collapse, we do know that there is a regular pattern to the prime minister’s behavior. He will zigzag until the last minute and after, and at the moment of truth, he will fall apart. All those who know Netanyahu also know that the last one to frighten him will succeed in convincing him. Netanyahu does not try to fight to correct this behavior, but stubbornly clings to it. He is unwilling to take any political risk and sacrifices all options for problematic issues, no matter how important, on the altar of his personal interests.

The immigration agreement Netanyahu had originally signed with the UN was a reasonable solution that contained an important achievement for Israel: Under Israeli pressure, the UN agreed to guarantee the absorption of some 16,000 migrant workers, almost half of those found today in Israel. The rest would have received temporary resident status for five years. It was not too bitter a pill to swallow. Israel signed the agreement in haste, before it became known that Rwanda had gone back on its promise to absorb the immigrants in its territory. If Netanyahu had only waited a day or two, the UN people would have understood that Israel had no other option and perhaps agreed to cut back on the quota Israel had agreed to absorb. A compromise could have been reached. But now it’s too late, and what's done cannot be undone. Netanyahu changed his mind, forfeited a diplomatic achievement and fled the scene.

We must remember that Netanyahu himself politicized the issue of migrant workers, called by the left asylum-seekers. For years he incited the public against them, called for their expulsion and denounced the left-wing circles and human rights organizations that mobilized to help them. Finally, when he understood that legal restrictions and the High Court of Justice would not allow him to simply deport them to Africa, Netanyahu tried to make a respectable exit. But then the monster he created turned on him in revenge.

Backing down from his own promises is almost the prime minister’s default mode of action: He signed the Wye River Memorandum in 1998, then got cold feet and did not implement it. Just recently he decided to push for early elections, then did an about-face at the last minute. He decided to raise taxes, then changed his mind. He decided in 2016 to bring then-Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog into his coalition and go for regional peace, then ran for dear life. He decided in July 2017 to erect metal detectors at the Temple Mount entrances, then gave into pressure against the move. He supported the 2005 disengagement from Gaza five times (voting in the coalition and then in the Knesset), then caved in during the last vote. This list is endless and shows that something is rotten in the state of Netanyahu, something deep and crucial inside that cannot withstand pressure and collapses at the moment of truth. And now his worsening legal plight is doing nothing to improve the situation.

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