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Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a plan to let thousands of African migrants remain in Israel and send thousands of others to live in Western countries. Then today, he changed his mind. It's been a controversy for months. Some Israelis say the migrants threaten the country's Jewish character. Others say they're fleeing danger and need help. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Jerusalem.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: About 35,000 African migrants are in Israel. They say they fled war in Sudan, military service in Eritrea and other hardships. Israel says they came to the country illegally. The government plan to deport many to Rwanda this month. But then yesterday Netanyahu said there would be no deportation because he had a deal with the U.N. to resettle about half of the migrants in Western countries and allow the other half to stay in Israel. Here was Netanyahu yesterday.
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PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: It's a good agreement. I'm very glad that we achieved it with the U.N. commissioner on refugees. It enables us to solve this problem in a way that protects the interests of the state of Israel and gives a solution to the residents of southern Tel Aviv and other neighborhoods.
ESTRIN: Southern Tel Aviv is where many of the Africans live. It's also where some of Netanyahu's Israeli supporters live. And they were furious. They want all the migrants out. Netanyahu's own Cabinet members criticized the deal, too, saying it would encourage more Africans to come. So within hours Netanyahu said he was suspending the deal, and then today he canceled it. Anti-migrant activist May Golan told Israeli TV she met with Netanyahu.
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MAY GOLAN: (Speaking Hebrew).
ESTRIN: She said Netanyahu promised to deport the migrants. She says Israel needs a solution that, quote, "removes all the infiltrators." But Israeli migrant advocates were angry. And they weren't the only ones. Some mainstream American-Jewish groups have been lobbying against deportation. Sharon Nazarian of the Anti-Defamation League said the group is disappointed Netanyahu reneged on the deal to resettle the migrants.
SHARON NAZARIAN: Ourselves as Jews, having been migrants and having been refugees throughout history, this is a moral issue for us. And we feel that it speaks to our own values.
ESTRIN: Netanyahu's reversal seems tied to his political troubles at home. Police are investigating him for suspected corruption. And there could be new elections called soon. He doesn't want to anger his base Shmuel Rosner, an Israeli columnist, told me on Skype.
SHMUEL ROSNER: The pressure of American Jews and their supporters on Israel on this issue of deportation was somewhat significant in Netanyahu's decision to try and look for a compromise or for accommodation that could make everybody happy. But as we can see, when it comes to endangering his own coalition and his own political future, then this pressure becomes secondary.
ESTRIN: Yesterday, when Netanyahu announced the deal to give migrants legal status, Eritrean migrant Madhani Solomon sent me this voice message.
MADHANI SOLOMON: (Speaking Hebrew).
ESTRIN: "I'm very happy," he said over and over in Hebrew. Now that Netanyahu has scrapped the plan, Solomon's worried about his future. He says he has many Israeli friends, but he says the government is against him.
SOLOMON: (Speaking Hebrew).
ESTRIN: He argued the government doesn't like him because of his skin color. Now Netanyahu says he'll try to come up with a new plan to deport the migrants. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.
CORNISH: That was NPR's Daniel Estrin reporting on the controversy over thousands of African migrants in Israel.
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