US rejects Netanyahu effort to walk back provocative remarks about Arab voters – MiamiHerald.com

Posted: Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized Monday for racially provocative remarks he made about Arab voters on Israel’s election day last week, but the move failed to assuage critics of his campaign-trail tactics, which sparked outrage in Israel and drew rare public rebukes from the White House.

The Obama administration made it clear Monday that it wasn’t letting Netanyahu off the hook for either the anti-Arab statements, in which he urged his supporters to turn out because Israeli Arabs were voting in “droves,” or remarks in which he vowed that a Palestinian state wouldn’t emerge under his watch, effectively rejecting the two-state solution that’s long been the internationally recognized framework for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We cannot simply pretend that these comments were never made,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told a national convention in Washington of J Street, a left-leaning, pro-peace group that’s positioning itself as a counterweight to more traditional pro-Israel lobbying groups such as AIPAC.

Netanyahu delivered the apology at a meeting in his official residence with an invited Arab delegation that did not include members of the Arab party known as the United List, which won 13 seats in the 120-member legislature.

“I know that what I said a few days ago offended Israeli Arabs. This was never my intention. I am sorry about that,” Netanyahu said to applause and cheers from his Arab listeners, who included members of his conservative Likud party. “My actions as prime minister, including huge investments in the minority sectors, prove the opposite.”

“I consider myself the prime minister of each and every one of you, all the citizens of Israel, regardless of religion, race or sex.”

The apology was promptly rejected by Ayman Odeh, the head of a newly elected Israeli Arab party that will be the third largest bloc in parliament. He called the remarks “another zigzag” by Netanyahu that could not substitute for concrete steps to ensure genuine equality for Israel’s Arab citizens.

“This is not a real apology,” Odeh told Israel’s Channel Two television. “What is required is a policy of real equality for the Arab population.”

The Obama administration struck a similar line, with spokespeople across the government insisting that Netanyahu “match words to actions.”

For now, a public dressing down is as far as U.S. officials will go, however. McDonough and other officials stopped short of spelling out any tougher response, whether through the United Nations or other avenues. In Geneva, the United States on Monday backed Israel by refusing to participate in a U.N. Human Rights Commission discussion of alleged Israeli human rights abuses.

Still, administration spokespeople continued to take special aim at the longtime notion of U.S. and Israeli “shared values,” warning that Israel’s democratic ideals are threatened by the open-ended occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, unfettered settlement expansion, and the de facto second-class citizenship of Arabs and other minorities.

“At the heart of any democracy is the right for all citizens to participate equally,” McDonough said to raucous applause at the J Street convention.

Since his re-election last week to an unprecedented fourth term, Netanyahu has tried to soften or qualify the controversial statements but to little success. Last week, Netanyahu explained in several interviews with U.S. news outlets that he had not meant to reject a two-state solution and only intended to say that conditions did not now exist for it to go into effect. The Obama administration rejected that version, however.

In his remarks at his official residence Monday, Netanyahu took a swipe at President Barack Obama, who had publicly criticized the prime minister’s election day appeal and brought it up with him in a phone conversation on Friday.

“No element outside the state of Israel should interfere in our democratic process,” Netanyahu said.

The anger at Netanyahu stems from a Facebook message he posted as Israelis went to the polls last Tuesday warning that “the rule of the right is in danger” and that Arab Israelis were “going in droves” to polling stations in buses provided by left-wing groups.

White House officials have used undiplomatic language to criticize the warning for days.

In an interviewed published Saturday, Obama told The Huffington Post that he’d told Netanyahu in a phone call that his warning about the Arab vote contradicted Israel’s democratic traditions. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called it a “cynical election day tactic” meant to “marginalize” Israeli Arabs, who are 20 percent of Israel’s population.

Netanyahu’s primary opponent, Isaac Herzog, called Netanyahu’s remarks “racist” and said that he’d “humiliated 20 percent of Israeli citizens for the sake of his election campaign.” Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, a one-time Likud politician, criticized them on Sunday.

Odeh, the head of the Arab party, called Netanyahu’s apology lip service in response to a chorus of criticism from abroad, and he noted that Netanyahu had promoted a controversial “nationality law” that critics said would demote the status of Israel’s Arab minority.

“He incited against citizens who exercised their basic right to vote for parliament,” Odeh said. “We are waiting for a real apology, in other words, a policy of real equality.”

Many U.S.-based Jewish groups also rejected both the anti-Arab remarks and the apology Monday. Speaker after speaker at the J Street conference drew cheers from the 3,000-person audience by attacking Netanyahu’s comments as unrepresentative of Israeli values. Stav Shaffir, the youngest member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, got a standing ovation for vowing that Israelis “will not stay silent to racist rants.”

“It looks like the prime minister said, ‘I’m sorry if you were offended,’ ” said Naomi Paiss of the New Israel Fund, a U.S.-based nonprofit that funds human rights and civil society groups in Israel. “And anyone in a romantic relationship knows that that is a weaseling out of responsibility. It’s even more true when you’re talking about insulting 20 percent of the country of which you are prime minister.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Netanyahu’s apology and his earlier attempts to walk back his comments on the two-state solution had done nothing to enhance the prime minister’s credibility.

“I think it’s just understandably confusing for people about which of his comments to believe,” she said. “ He said diametrically opposing things in the matter of a week. So which is his actual policy? That’s why what we said is, words aren’t enough at this point. We need to see actions – actions and policies.”

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