The administration of US President Barack Obama joined Arab Knesset members on Monday in questioning an apology offered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the Arab sector in Israel for his warning against the Arab vote.
It was the second time over the past week that the Obama administration and the Arab Joint List issued strikingly similar statements criticizing him, in a likely sign of what is to come as long as the prime minister and Obama are in office. Arab MKs and Obama himself questioned the sincerity of Netanyahu’s clarifications on the Palestinian issue.
Netanyahu tried to make amends with the Arab sector on Monday by hosting leaders from Israeli Arab and other minority communities from across the country at his official residence in Jerusalem.
He used the occasion to apologize for his Election Day warning to right-wing voters that Israeli Arabs were going to vote en masse in buses funded by foreign, nongovernmental organizations and donors.
“I know that my comments last week offended some Israeli citizens and offended members of the Israeli-Arab community,” he said. “This was never my intent. I apologize for this.”
Netanyahu said his actions as prime minister, including the significant investment made within Israel’s minority communities, proved that he has nothing against Arabs. He said his Election Day statement was merely intended to emphasize that no foreign entity should be interfering with Israel’s democratic process.
“I view myself as the prime minister of each and every citizen of Israel, without any prejudice based on religion, ethnicity, or gender,” he said. “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.”
US officials continued questioning the leadership and judgment of the newly reelected premier on Monday, after Obama said over the weekend that he planned a reassessment of the relationship.
“When he says one thing one day and another thing another it’s impossible to tell if he’s sincere,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters. “We can’t read his mind.”
Joint List head Ayman Odeh called Netanyahu’s statement unacceptable and said a sincere apology should come in the form of passing laws intended to make state funding allocations in Israel more equal.
He said that, after the meeting with the Arab leaders, Netanyahu met with Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett and spoke to him about advancing nationalist legislation.
“This is just another zigzag by a man known for his zigzags,” Odeh said. “He should return the mandates he received for his incitement. We are waiting for a real apology, which means real equality.”
Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi said the prime minister’s comments were “an expression of sorrow, not an apology.” He said that “when it comes to Jews, Netanyahu apologizes, but when it is about Arabs, he only is sorry.”
In a statement, the Joint List said, “Unfortunately the racism of Netanyahu and his government did not begin and end with this inciting statement.”
“The racist and exclusionary legislation and the discriminatory policy are also part of Netanyahu’s work plan for the next Knesset,” it said. “So we have no choice but to reject this apology and continue our struggle for equality for the Arab population.”
The Zionist Union, which is expected to formally head the opposition, did not join the Obama administration and the Joint List in criticizing Netanyahu’s apology.
Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman welcomed Netanyahu’s outreach and apology to the Israeli-Arab community.
“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,” Foxman said.
“It is important to remember that under Prime Minister Netanyahu’s watch there’s been a significant effort by the Israeli government to integrate Israeli Arabs into the broader society, particularly by investing billions of shekels in improving education and employment opportunities for Israeli Arabs. Unfortunately, throughout the recent election campaign, there were too many extreme and divisive statements. We reiterate our call to Israelis of all political affiliations to work to heal these wounds and promote inclusion for all in Israel.”
Reuters and Ariel Ben Solomon contributed to this report.