Rivlin rebukes Netanyahu for ‘ugly’ comments branding Arab lawmakers a ‘threat’

President expresses his ‘strong objection’ to PM’s recent barbs against Joint List MKs while railing against possible Blue and White minority government

President Reuven Rivlin issued an extraordinary rebuke of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday following a meeting between the two, denouncing recent comments by the premier about Arab politicians as “ugly” and saying they “undermine the legitimacy” of Israel’s Arab community.

Rivlin met Netanyahu and Likud party coalition negotiators ahead of a high-stakes meeting between the prime minister and his chief rival, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, on forming a potential unity government.

The President’s Residence said Netanyahu and his team updated him on the coalition talks, and that Rivlin “is of the opinion that the State of Israel needs as broad a unity government as possible.”

According to the statement, Rivlin “expressed his strong objection to recent statements against members of the Knesset and Arab population.”

Netanyahu has made increasingly dire warnings about a Blue and White minority government backed by the Joint List of majority Arab parties, whose lawmakers he accused earlier this week of wanting “to destroy” Israel.

Those remarks, Rivlin said, “undermine the legitimacy of these parts of Israeli society, deepening the already existing divisions. I ask everyone who cares about the State of Israel to stop these ugly statements once and for all.”

Leader of the Joint list Ayman Odeh (R) and party member Ahmad Tibi arrive for a meeting with party members at the Knesset on September 22, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While he said that some comments by Arab MKs “regarding Israeli society, and particularly about IDF [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers, are severe, shocking and unacceptable,” he added that he vehemently opposes characterizing of all Arab lawmakers as a “fifth column” and “threat” to the country’s existence.

“We, who live as sovereigns in our country, the Jewish and democratic State of Israel, must ensure equal rights and respectful and meaningful discourse with all Israelis,” he said.

“The exclusion of entire sectors of the population has become an issue that is relevant to every part of society,” Rivlin said.

He highlighted remarks made Tuesday by ultra-Orthodox MK Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism party, who chairs the Knesset Finance Committee, commending Arab MKs on their long-standing partnership and cooperation on a variety of issues.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, on October 27, 2019. (Elad Malka)

“We must not get to the point where the results of the elections lead to a situation where wonderful parts of the society, integral parts of this country, feel again and again that their legitimacy is being undermined,” Rivlin concluded.

Netanyahu and Gantz were set to meet at 10 p.m. Tuesday, as multiple reports said the leaders were having serious negotiations for the first time since the September elections amid intense efforts to form a unity government.

The parties are reportedly discussing a last-minute deal to form a government based on Rivlin’s unity proposal — which entails a power-sharing agreement whereby Netanyahu would take a leave of absence if indicted for corruption and be replaced by Gantz as prime minister — subject to some changes. The centrist leader was last month tasked with cobbling together a coalition after Netanyahu failed to do so in the wake of the September elections.

On Sunday evening, Netanyahu’s Likud party organized an “emergency rally” that was aimed aimed at “stopping the dangerous minority government that is reliant on terror supporters.” There, Netanyahu accused members of the Joint List of seeking to “destroy the country.” He claimed, without proof, that the Arab MKs support the Gaza terror organizations that Israel fought against last week.

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