JERUSALEM — Newly reelected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized Monday to Israel’s Arab citizens for an inflammatory comment he made on election day last week.
Netanyahu won a decisive victory in last Tuesday’s parliamentary election, despite pollsters suggesting that his Likud party might face defeat after two terms in power.
In a last-minute election push, Netanyahu warned that unless his supporters went out to vote, his right-wing party could lose because Arabs were heading to polling stations in large numbers.
“The right-wing government is in danger,” the Israeli prime minister said in a 30-second video clip he posted on Facebook. “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.”
He later backtracked, saying he had no problem with Israel’s Arab minority exercising its right to vote. His criticism, Netanyahu said, was with outside interference from foreign governments, which he accused of funding leftist nongovernmental organizations and the Arabs.
Netanyahu’s original comment, however, sparked great upset among Israel’s 1.7 million Arab citizens, who despite making up roughly 20 percent of the population often feel discriminated against in the Jewish state.
The inciting statement also drew condemnation from President Obama, who in an interview Friday with the Huffington Post said that “that kind of rhetoric was contrary to what is the best of Israel’s traditions.”
“Although Israel was founded based on the historic Jewish homeland and the need to have a Jewish homeland, Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly,” Obama said. “And I think that that is what’s best about Israeli democracy. If that is lost, then I think that not only does it give ammunition to folks who don’t believe in a Jewish state, but it also, I think, starts to erode the meaning of democracy in the country.”
On Monday, the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, continued the criticism, taking aim at the Israeli prime minister’s campaign pledge that he would not allow a Palestinian state to be established while he was in office, and his subsequent post-election reversal in which he backtracked from that stance.
“We cannot simply pretend that those comments were never made, or that they don’t raise questions about the prime minister’s commitment to achieving peace through direct negotiations,” McDonough said.
During his meeting Monday with more than a dozen mayors, local council heads and religious leaders from the Arab community, Netanyahu said he had never intended to offend.
“I know that my comments last week offended some Israeli citizens and offended members of the Israeli-Arab community. This was never my intent. I apologize for this,” said Netanyahu. “I view myself as the prime minister of each and every citizen of Israel, without any prejudice based on religion, ethnicity or gender. I view every citizen as my partner in building a more secure, more prosperous state of Israel and a nation that benefits the needs and interests of all our citizenry.”
However, Netanyahu continued to make reference to “foreign entities,” which he said “should not be interfering with Israel’s democratic process.”
Some believe that it was Netanyahu’s election day comment that helped increase voter turnout in the Arab sector, boosting the standing of the Joint List, a union of four Arab parties that ran on a united ticket for the first time. Tuesday’s election saw the party win 14 seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, making it the third-largest political faction.
In a statement released Monday night, the Joint List said it refused to accept Netanyahu’s apology, seeing it as a “meaningless act aiming to legitimize his racist reign.”
“Netanyahu's racism did not begin with this inciting statement, and surely will not end there,” said the Joint List, declaring it would continue the struggle for equality for the Arab population. “Inciting and marginalizing legislation is Netanyahu’s political platform for the near future.”
The White House, however, released a statement commending Netanyahu for the apology, calling it “appropriate.”
Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League, also welcomed Netanyahu’s apology, saying: “While I do not believe the prime minister’s election day remarks were intended to be anti-Arab or racist, his words left questions in people’s minds about how the Arab community is viewed by Israel’s leadership and their place in Israeli society.”