A senior lawmaker in Prime Minister Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party apologized Saturday for saying it was “bullshit” that some Israelis who have lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic can’t afford food.
Minister without portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi made the comment during an interview Friday evening on the popular Channel 12 talk show “Ofira and Berkovic,” as he was pressed on Netanyahu’s response to the economic fallout accompanying the government restrictions put in place to contain the virus. “This nonsense that people have nothing to eat is bullshit. Bullshit,” Hanegbi said. “There are a million people who, most of them, until now, have received unemployment payments… There are businesses that were hurt and they’re in serious distress. [But] saying ‘there’s nothing to eat’ is populism.”
While apologizing Saturday, Hanegbi also took a shot at the program’s hosts Ofira Asayag and Eyal Berkovic, accusing them of sowing panic among the public.
“I apologize for the strong remark that I made during an interview yesterday,” he wrote on Twitter. “I wanted to say to the interviewers that their extreme and callous criticism created panic in the public instead of hope.”
Hanegbi said he was trying to stress the government’s efforts to help the economy, but got carried away in the “heat of debate.”
“I expressed myself in a way that hurt the public’s feelings. This wasn’t my intention and I take back what was said,” the Likud minister said, adding he was “aware of the great distress of an entire public who is in a war of survival.”
The apology came after Hanegbi faced criticism from numerous opposition lawmakers over the comment.
“Tzachi, go meet the self-employed, the unemployed, the business owners whose lives have fallen apart. The only bullshit is the out of touch government that you sit in,” Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party, wrote on Twitter.
Hanegbi made the remark as he pushed back on hosts Ofira Asayag and Eyal Berkovic’s repeated assertion that some Israelis have nothing to eat, insisting the expression was “exaggerated” and said he didn’t agree with it.
Hanegbi, who was called “out of touch” by the hosts, retorted that it was they who were out of touch.
“You don’t know what populism is. It’s yelling and yelling,” he said. “You can’t pour out money without limit.”
Finance Minister Israel Katz, also of Likud, issued a veiled criticism of Hanegbi on Saturday evening following his apology.
“Many in the Israeli public are mired in economic hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic. My associates and I are committed to doing everything in order to embrace everyone and give them all the assistance they require, until we get to a more secure future. Do not make accusations,” Katz wrote on Twitter.
Hanegbi’s comments came amid growing criticism of Netanyahu’s response to the pandemic. According to a Channel 12 poll earlier this week, 35 percent of Israelis approve of the premier’s handling of the economic aspects of the virus crisis, while 58% gave him a thumbs down.
When asked the same question in a poll on May 8, 53% had approved and 43% disapproved.
Netanyahu and Katz have announced a series of measures in recent days to help Israelis hurt economically by the crisis, including extending eligibility for unemployment payments through mid-August and rolling out a financial aid package for business owners.
According to the Globes business daily, the unemployment rate in Israel is currently at 21%, with over 800,000 Israelis jobless, up from under 4% before the start of the pandemic.