JERUSALEM — In an abrupt and startling reversal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nixed his own deal Tuesday with the United Nations to resettle tens of thousands of African migrants in Israel and other Western nations, caving in to nationalist critics who have demonized the migrants for taking over poor neighborhoods in Tel Aviv.

The move leaves unresolved one of Israel’s most charged and divisive issues – what to do with the Africans who say they fled for their lives in search of sanctuary in the Jewish state.

The about-face also opened Netanyahu to scathing assaults on his leadership, raising doubts about his ability to make controversial decisions on bigger issues in the future, including how he would respond to a peace plan promised by President Trump.

Netanyahu proudly announced the deal Monday in a nationally televised news conference, saying Israel had agreed to cancel a planned expulsion of tens of thousands of Africans that had been widely condemned both at home and among Jews around the world.

Under the deal, roughly half of the 35,000 migrants living in Israel would be resettled in the West with the rest absorbed in Israel. Netanyahu praised it as a “good agreement” that marked “an important day” for Israel.

But hours later, after heavy criticism among nationalists within his own ruling coalition, he said he was putting the plan on hold. After meeting angry residents of working-class neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv on Tuesday, Netanyahu said he was canceling it outright.


“From time to time there are decisions that have to be reconsidered,” he said. “We will continue to act determinedly to exhaust all our options of removing the infiltrators.”

A coalition of human rights organizations in Israel said the flip-flop proved the government could not be trusted to fulfill any “moral, legal or international commitments.”

Domestic critics said it raised broader questions about whether Netanyahu could carry out any proper decision-making process.

“How will you, as prime minister, handle the Iranian threat? How will you deal with the cost of living?” asked Avi Gabbay, leader of the opposition Labor Party. “Lack of leadership, cowardice, escape from responsibility, incitement, empty slogans, inability to make decisions and zero ability to implement them – this is what we have seen over the past few hours from he who pretends to deal with the real threats and problems of Israel.”

The aborted U.N. deal had looked to avoid the specter of forced deportations to undisclosed African destinations, widely believed to be Rwanda and Uganda, with which Israel said it had reached a secret agreement. Israel had planned to begin the mass deportations on Sunday.

The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants advocacy group said Netanyahu’s initial announcement revealed there was no such agreement. Rather than resolving the migrants’ status, it said they were once again in limbo while the state had no legitimate recourse to deport any of them.

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