Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that he regrets issuing a warning to his supporters ahead of the country's elections last week that Arab voters were heading to the polls "in droves."
At an event hosted at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said he recognized the comment hurt Israeli Arabs, and that it was not his intention to do so, as Haaretz first reported.
"I see myself as the prime minister of each and every one of you, of all Israeli citizens without differentiating between religions, races and sex," he added. "I see in all Israeli citizens partners in building the state of Israel, one that is thriving and safe for all Israeli citizens."
Last Tuesday, after the polls had opened, the prime minister had urged backers of the party he leads, Likud, to turn out in order to counteract the votes of Arabs who were energized by the merging of various Arab-Israeli parties.
“The right-wing government is in danger," Netanyahu said in a video posted on Facebook. "Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out. Get out to vote, bring your friends and family, vote Likud in order to close the gap between us and ‘Labor.’”
The "left-wing organizations" Netanyahu was referring to may have included progressive advocacy groups like Ameinu, an American-based nonprofit that funded get-out-the-vote efforts in Israeli-Arab communities ahead of the election.
The comment further inflamed tensions with President Barack Obama's administration, which was already upset by Netanyahu's promise in an interview with a right-wing Hebrew-language website that a state for the Palestinians wouldn't be established were he to form the next government.
Obama told The Huffington Post in a sit-down interview Friday that the remark "was contrary to what is the best of Israel's traditions."
"Although Israel was founded based on the historic Jewish homeland and the need to have a Jewish homeland, Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly," the president said. "And I think that that is what's best about Israeli democracy. If that is lost, then I think that not only does it give ammunition to folks who don't believe in a Jewish state, but it also I think starts to erode the meaning of democracy in the country."
Netanyahu avoided issuing any sort of mea culpa, even after the Obama administration called Netanyahu's comments "cynical" and "divisive." Press Secretary Josh Earnest said it "was a pretty transparent effort to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens and their right to participate in their democracy."
“I wasn't trying to block anyone from voting. I was trying to mobilize my own forces,” Netanyahu said in an interview with NPR Friday. “And that mobilization was based on Arab money -- sorry, on foreign money, a lot of foreign money that was coming in.”
Netanyahu's party gained enough seats in the next Israeli parliament to form a government with other right-wing parties. The Joint Arab List, however, will be the third-largest party in the Knesset and the second-biggest faction in the opposition.