Coalition chairman David Bitan hit back Saturday evening at widespread criticism for saying he’d prefer it if Arab Israelis did not vote in elections, and declined to retract the remarks.
“I do not understand what the fuss is about,” the Likud MK said. “No political party wants to see its opponents going to the polls.”
Bitan sparked outrage earlier in the day when he told a cultural event in Mevasseret Zion: “What I’m saying is, if they [Arabs] weren’t able to come [to vote], that would be preferable, but it makes no difference: It’s not for me to tell them whether to come or not to come [to vote].”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) slammed Bitan for his comments, saying “the coalition chairman in the Jewish state calls to deny voting rights to minorities, just as the anti-Semitic leaders of Europe did in the past to the Jewish people.” Herzog predicted that Netanyahu would remain silent, “while his coalition chief and political ally drafts a new racist platform.”
Herzog’s party colleague, MK Tzipi Livni, also criticized Bitan, citing her own political roots on the right.
“Likud in 2016 is light years away from its roots and what Likud used to stand for. Netanyahu lost all shame in the  election and allowed the others to compete over who can harm Israeli society the most,” she said.
“While Netanyahu’s Likud is worried about Arab Israelis, the laws to annex the West Bank they are promoting will bring millions more of Arabs living there to demand voting rights, instead of a state of their own.”
In his original remarks, Bitan also referred to the Joint (Arab) List, a coalition of three Arab parties that run together as one Knesset faction (in order to clear the 3.5% threshold for entering parliament), saying: “Ninety-five percent of Arab Israelis vote for the Joint List, which does not represent the Arabs of Israel but rather Palestinian interests.”
Joint List MK Youssef Jabareen called for Bitan to be removed from his position, saying that “in a normal country, such racist comments would lead to the immediate dismissal of the coalition chairman.”
The Joint List chairman, MK Ayman Odeh, said he was not surprised to discover “that the great democrat [Bitan] prefers Arabs not vote.”
But, Odeh said that “his and the government’s racism is just another engine to increase our political power.”
Former prime minister Ehud Barak accused Bitan of leading Israel into “an abyss.”
The MK “reveals the truth about the direction in which we are being led. Right now it’s popular, but upon closer inspection one can see the abyss.”
Bitan hit back at Barak, who served as Netanyahu’s defense minister in a previous government, saying: “It’s better not to preach morality at us from your nice house in the United States.”
Likud MK Yehudah Glick, meanwhile, offered a more gentle rebuke to Bitan, saying: “I very much hope that the Arabs do vote. I hope that we are attractive enough that the Arabs also to want to vote for Likud.”