Premier Benjamin Netanyahu apologised to Israel’s Arab citizens today for remarks he made during last week’s parliamentary election that offended members of the community.
The move appeared to be an attempt to heal rifts and mute criticism at home and in the United States. Mr Netanyahudrew accusations of racism in Israel, especially from its Arab minority, and a White House rebuke when, just a few hours before polling stations were to close across the country, he warned that Arab citizens were voting “in droves”.
Mr Netanyahu, whose Likud Party won re-election in the vote, met with members of the arab community at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem on Monday and apologised.
He said he knows his “comments last week offended some Israeli citizens and offended members of the Israeli-Arab community”.
“This was never my intent. I apologise for this,” Mr Netanyahu said. “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 all Israeli citizens as partners in the building of a prosperous and safe state of Israel, for all Israelis,” he also said.
A recently established alliance of four small, mostly Arab parties called the Joint List made unprecedented gains in the March 17 election, earning enough votes to make it the third-largest party in Israel’s parliament. Arab citizens make up 20% of Israel’s population. Equality is guaranteed in Israel’s laws but many Arabs have long complained of discrimination, mainly in the job and housing market.
Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, told channel 2 TV that Mr Netanyahu‘s apology was not accepted.
“This is not a real apology,” Mr Odeh said. “He incited against citizens who were exercising their basic right to vote for Knesset.”
Mr Odeh also accused Mr Netanyahu of “zigzagging” by saying one thing one day and a different another.
In the final days of the campaign, Mr Netanyahu angered the US by taking a tough stance toward the Palestinians and by saying a Palestinian state will not be established on his watch in the current climate of regional chaos and violence. Resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in a two state solution is a key US foreign policy priority.
The tough talk was part of a last-ditch attempt by Netanyahu to spur his more hard-line supporters to the polls after it appeared he was losing voters to a more hawkish party.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters today that she had not seen the Netanyahu apology but that the Israeli prime minister is hard to read because “he said diametrically opposing things in the matter of a week”.
“When you say things, words matter. And if you say something different two days later, which do we believe,” she said. “What we’re looking for now are actions and policies.”
Mr Netanyahu defended his election-day remarks in the days after the vote. He told NBC last Thursday that he remains committed to Palestinian statehood – if conditions in the region improve – and to the two-state vision first spelled out in a landmark 2009 speech at Israel’s Bar Ilan University.
“I haven’t changed my policy,” he said. “I never retracted my speech.”
He told NBC that his government has spent billions in Arab towns to upgrade infrastructure, schools and narrow gaps.
Earlier Monday, Mr Netanyahu secured a majority of backers in the new parliament and will later be tasked with forming the next government.
Israel’s ceremonial president, Reuven Rivlin, has been meeting with the parties in parliament to hear their recommendations before appointing who will form the next coalition government. Kulanu, a new centrist party gave its nod to Mr Netanyahu on Monday, giving him 61 backers out of the 120 in parliament.
Mr Netanyahu appears poised to set up a coalition with hawkish, centrist and religious parties.