Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has apologised for warning last week that Arab citizens were voting in “droves,” comments denounced by world leaders and many Israelis as anti-democratic, race-baiting and fear-mongering.
“I know that my comments last week offended some Israeli citizens and offended members of the Israeli Arab community,” Mr Netanyahu said, according to a translation provided by his party, Likud. “This was never my intent. I apologise for this.”
The apology came hours after Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin announced that Mr Netanyahu had secured the backing of 67 of the 120 Parliament members elected last week and officially designated him to form the next government. Likud received the backing the pro-settler Jewish Home party, the ultra-nationalist Israel Beiteinu party and the centrist Kulanu, along with ultra-Orthodox parties.
Mr Rivlin, whose first months in office have been marked by outreach to Arabs in Israel, was among those who criticised Mr Netanyahu’s election day statements, saying: “Everyone must be careful in their comments, especially those that the entire world hears.”
The uproar served as a final act for a divisive, ugly campaign of personal attacks. Midway through last Tuesday’s voting, Mr Netanyahu posted a video on his Facebook page expressing alarm that Arabs were “being bused to the polling stations in droves” by left-wing organisations.
Mr Netanyahu said in a series of interviews on Thursday that he did not intend to suppress the Arab vote, as many critics contended, only to inspire Israelis who supported him to get to polling places themselves.
But Monday’s statement, made to a gathering of Israeli Arab leaders at the prime minister’s residence, was the first hint of an apology. According to the statement, Mr Netanyahu also told the group: “I view myself as the prime minister of each and every citizen of Israel. Without any prejudice based on religion, ethnicity or gender, I view every citizen as my partner in building a more secure, more prosperous state of Israel and a nation that benefits the needs and interests of all our citizenry.”
Mr Netanyahu has 28 days to form a coalition. He can ask the president for a 14-day extension, but his aides said he aimed to announce his government before Israel’s Independence Day on April 23.
Meanwhile, the European Union has joined Palestinian and Arab delegations in calling on Israel to allow a UN human rights investigator to visit Gaza, while the United States and Israel snubbed the debate.
Israel has not cooperated with special rapporteur Makarim Wibisono, who presented his first report to the Human Rights Council based on interviews with people in Amman and Cairo, or witnesses on video calls in Gaza.
His report urged Israel to investigate the killing of more than 1500 Palestinian civilians, one-third of them children, during the 2014 Gaza war. Israel says it launched its offensive after rocket attacks by militants operating out of the Islamist Hamas-ruled strip.
The EU believed it was urgent to make “renewed, structured and substantial efforts towards peace” in the Middle East, he said. It was the first time in two years that the EU has spoken during the debate dedicated to Israel, in which the United States has refused to participate since March 2013.