Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized Monday for comments that upset Arab citizens during parliamentary elections last week, but the mea culpa was rejected by community leaders who described Netanyahu’s government as racist.
Netanyahu, who had warned supporters that Arab voters were heading to the polls “in droves,” said in a statement from his office that he had no intention of offending Israeli Arabs.
“I am sorry for this,” said Netanyahu, whose Likud Party won the March 17 elections. “I view myself as prime minister of each and every one of you, of all Israeli citizens, regardless of religion, race and gender. I view all Israeli citizens as partners in the building of a prosperous and safe state of Israel, for all Israelis.”
His statement, however, did not assuage leaders of a political alliance of Israeli Arabs, who said that prejudice under Netanyahu’s leadership did not begin, nor will it end, with the election day remark.
“Racist, marginalizing legislation and discriminatory policy are a work plan for Netanyahu in the next Knesset as well, therefore we reject his apology and continue our fight for equality for the Arab population,” the alliance, known as the Joint List, said in a statement. “Netanyahu’s regret is no more than an empty gesture intended to legitimize the continued racist rule of Netanyahu and his people.”
The comment about Israeli Arab voters, along with Netanyahu’s election-eve rejection of the possibility of a Palestinian state under his watch, prompted the Obama administration to say it is reevaluating the U.S. relationship with Israel. Netanyahu has since said he still supports a peace agreement that sets up a Palestinian state.
The diplomatic shake-up comes as the U.S. and five other world powers this week try to strike a deal with Iran over its nuclear program.
Netanyahu has emerged as a leading opponent to a possible deal with Iran, saying it is an existential threat to Israel. This month, he denounced the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran during a joint meeting of Congress.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on Monday emphasized the administration’s commitment to a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians during a talk at J Street, a Washington-based organization that is critical of Netanyahu.
“We cannot simply pretend that these comments were never made,” McDonough said. “In recent days, some have suggested our reaction to this issue is a matter of personal pique. Nothing could be further from the truth. America’s commitment to a two-state solution is fundamental to U.S. foreign policy.... It is the only way to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem and Times staff writer Parsons from Washington. Staff writer Paul Richter in Lausanne, Switzerland, contributed to this report.