Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday distanced himself from comments made by his Likud party ally Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who dismissed claims that some Israelis don’t have enough money for food amid the economic crisis as “bullshit.”
The coronavirus crisis sent unemployment skyrocketing in Israel and Netanyahu has come under increasing fire for his handling of the ongoing economic woes.
A statement put out by Netanyahu on Saturday evening didn’t name Hanegbi, who has since apologized for the comment.
“The prime minister regrets comments [that imply] the distress of the coronavirus isn’t real,” the statement said.
It added: “Like everywhere in the world, the coronavirus has had a high cost in [terms of] life, health and livelihood. The distress is real and the prime minister is working around the clock to provide an answer to it.”
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.”
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.
He apologized Saturday, but 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.”
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 in which you sit,” Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party, wrote on Twitter.
Immigration Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata of the Blue and White party said Saturday in response to Hanegbi, “Our first duty now as a government, and our mission, is to care for the million or so unemployed people. This is our main mission — to rescue Israel from the coronavirus crisis. And it starts with understanding the situation of civilians who are in distress.”
Finance Minister Israel Katz, also of Likud, issued a veiled criticism of Hanegbi 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 last week, 35 percent of Israelis approve of the premier’s handling of the economic aspects of the virus crisis, while 58 percent gave him a thumbs down.
When asked the same question in a poll on May 8, 53 percent had approved and 43 percent 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.