DAVID BITAN seen at the Knesset last year.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose not to respond Saturday to a controversial statement against Arabs voting by his coalition chairman, David Bitan, that caused a political uproar.
Bitan (Likud) caused a storm on Saturday when he said, “Arabs flock to the polls? I’d prefer if they didn’t show up to vote at all.”
Bitan added that, while 95% of Israeli Arabs vote for the Joint List, “the Joint List doesn’t represent Israeli-Arab interests – it represents Palestinian interests.”
The Joint List called on Netanyahu to fire Bitan. Zionist Union MK Zouheir Bahloul called upon Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit to investigate him for incitement and undermining Israel’s democratic character.
“Bitan, who has become the dirty mouth of the prime minister, continues proving that all the leadership has to offer is blatant racism and cheap populism,” Joint List head Ayman Odeh said. “Our response will be to get stronger in the next election.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog compared Bitan’s statement to those of antisemites in Nazi Europe who did not let Jews vote. Even hawkish Likud MK Yehudah Glick criticized the statement, saying that he hopes Arabs vote and that they should vote Likud.
But Netanyahu decided against releasing a statement condemning Bitan or reacting to him in any way. A source close to him said he would probably call Bitan Sunday and scold him to end the story.
Since making a statement on Election Day last year about Arabs voting in droves that he regrets, Netanyahu has tried to reach out to the sector, visiting a school in the northern Arab city of Tamra on the first day of school.
He also recently briefed reporters in the Arab sector and released a video in which he addresses the sector in an effort at reconciliation. The Likud even held a rally for Arab supporters in September on the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha.
Hours after the statement, Bitan said he did not understand why what he said was controversial.
“I don’t know why it’s such a big deal,” he said. “In elections, both sides hope its opponents don’t come vote.”
Bitan has a history of making controversial statements. In November, he said the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by a rightwing activist was not political. He also called for revoking the citizenship of Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of B’Tselem.
Former prime minister Ehud Barak also responded to Bitan’s statements, tweeting that Bitan was, “revealing the true direction that we are being led.” Bitan responded on Twitter that he “has no right to scold from your comfortable home in the United States.”
Joint List MK Yousef Jabareen called for Bitan’s dismissal, stating “In a proper country such racist remarks would lead to one’s immediate dismissal. How would France respond if a senior politician said he would prefer if Jews were to abstain from voting?” Jabareen asked.
“It seems that members of the Israeli government have lost not only all sense of responsibility and morality, they are also ignorant of the historical lessons of their own people.”
MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) responded to Bitan by calling his remarks “racist and irresponsible,” stating that the Likud as a whole “doesn’t even try to act like a ruling party, but as a radical fringe party. The prime minister knows how to dismiss ministers and officials for less.”
Zionist Union MK Omer Bar-Lev also responded, saying “Bitan would like to see Israel first without Arabs, then without leftists, and finally with no one left except his own party. One state, one party, one vote – similar to some of Israel’s neighbors.”
The former commander of the elite IDF General Staff Reconnaissance Unit called on all Israeli citizens, including Arabs, “to participate in the democratic process and vote, exercising their democratic right, and duty.”