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Israeli Arabs insist PM do penance for comments

NGO, Arab MK call on Netanyahu to publicly apologize for warning Israeli voters of high Arab turnout on election day

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu in an Election Day message, March 17, 2015, warning that Arab voters were coming out in droves. (screen capture: YouTube)
Benjamin Netanyahu in an Election Day message, March 17, 2015, warning that Arab voters were coming out in droves. (screen capture: YouTube)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s warning on election day of high Arab turnout at voting stations continued to make waves on Sunday, as civil society groups and private citizens accused the Likud leader of inciting against a fifth of Israel’s population.

“Next time a [political] murder takes place, it will be as though the prime minister sanctioned it by saying it’s OK to hate Arabs,” said Arab-Israeli TV presenter Lucy Aharish, who was chosen to light a torch in the coming Independence Day ceremonies, on Channel 2’s Meet the Press Saturday. “The prime minister simply doesn’t get it.”

Arab voter turnout reached 64 percent last week, significantly higher than the 57% rate of the 2013 elections, though still much lower than Israel’s national average of 71.8%, which was a 15-year record.

MK Ahmad Tibi, number 4 on the Joint (Arab) List, turned to the camera during a Channel 2 interview on March 19, asking Netanyahu to publicly apologize for his comments.

“You have hurt all Israeli citizens, not just the Arabs,” Tibi said.

Members of the Joint List met with President Reuven Rivlin Sunday and told him that they had turned to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and requested that he recommend that Netanyahu stand trial for his statements.

MK Ahmad Tibi participates in a panel discussion at the Israel Conference on Democracy, in Tel Aviv on February 17, 2015. (photo credit: Amir Levy/Flash90)
MK Ahmad Tibi participates in a panel discussion at the Israel Conference on Democracy, in Tel Aviv on February 17, 2015. (photo credit: Amir Levy/Flash90)

Although Netanyahu subsequently explained that his comments were not intended to single out Israel’s Arab population but rather to warn against foreign meddling in the election process, the Abraham Fund Initiatives, an Israeli nonprofit dealing with Jewish-Arab coexistence, asked Rivlin to take Netanyahu’s words into account when tasking him with forming the next government.

The prime minister’s comments, the organization told Rivlin on Sunday, “have deeply shocked Arab society in Israel, causing huge damage to the Arab minority’s relations with the state.”

“We regard with seriousness the encouragement of fear and hatred toward Arab citizens of Israel as part of the election campaign, ignoring the long-term damage that these utterances cause to the common life of Jews and Arab citizens of Israel,” the statement read.

“We call on you (Rivlin) to raise this matter during your consultations, and ask the prime to rectify the damage caused to Arab-government relations through a corrective public statement.”

Indeed, during his meeting with party representative on Sunday, the president denounced “hateful” remarks during the election campaign, calling on Israeli politicians to “mend and heal Israeli society.”

Speaking with Joint List leader Aymen Odeh, Rivlin spoke out against the “harsh and hurtful” remarks by both Jewish and Arab candidates during the election season. In the run-up to the elections, a Joint List spokesperson compared Zionists to the Islamic State. “There is no place for such remarks, no during the elections and certainly not after them,” he said. “I call on everyone, Jews and Arabs alike, to refrain from mutual incitement and provocation.”

US President Barack Obama was among several world leaders who criticized Netanyahu for his remarks, expressing concern about the impact of that sort of rhetoric on Israeli democracy.

“We indicated that that kind of rhetoric was contrary to what is the best of Israel’s traditions. That 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,” the president told The Huffington Post.

“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 name of democracy in the country,” he added.

Meretz MK Issawi Freij also called on Rivlin to compel Netanyahu to apologize for his remarks.

“Netanyahu was not averse from using racism, with words whose aim was to stir up the basic fear of the voters in order to snatch a victory at the polling station, but this victory achieved on the backs of Israel’s Arab citizens,” Freij said. He called on Rivlin to demand that Netanyahu apologize to Israeli Arabs publicly, “and to make that a condition to receiving the mandate for putting together the government.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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