Israeli Arabs are not “second class voters” and all citizens have full equality before the law, President Reuven Rivlin said in an apparent rebuke of Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks on Israel’s Jewish identity.
Mr Netanyahu was widely criticised after posting on Instagram that Israel was “not a country of all its citizens.”
The Israel Prime Minsiter later said during a cabinet meeting: “Israel is a Jewish, democratic state. What this means is that it is the nation-state of the Jewish people alone,” he said.
“Of course it respects the individual rights of all its citizens — Jews and non-Jews alike. But it is the nation-state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people.”
The remarks triggered a flurry of commentary online and prompted President Rivlin to respond during a ceremony on Monday morning.
“I refused and refuse to believe that there are political parties that have surrendered the character of Israel as a Jewish and democratic, democratic and Jewish, state,” he said to loud applause from the audience, according to the Times of Israel.
“Those who believe that the State of Israel must be Jewish and democratic in the full sense of the word must remember that the State of Israel has complete equality of rights for all its citizens.”
Mr Rivlin added that politicians — who he did not name — had been making “entirely unacceptable remarks about the Arab citizens of Israel”.
He continued: “There are no, and there will be no, first-class citizens, and there are no second-class voters.
“We are all equal in the voting booth. Jews and Arabs, citizens of the State of Israel.”
Mr Netanyahu’s remark on Sunday had been a response to comments made by Rotem Sela, a popular Israel actress and TV show host. Ms Sela had written on Instagram about an interview conducted by Israel’s Channel 12 with Miri Regev, the Justice Minister.
“Miri Regev is sitting and explaining to [Channel 12 news anchor] Rina Matsliah that the public needs to beware, because if Benny Gantz is elected he will have to create a government with the Arabs,” Ms Sela wrote.
“Rina Matsliah is silent. And I ask myself: why doesn’t Rina ask her in shock: ‘And what’s the problem with the Arabs???’ Dear God, there are also Arab citizens in this country.”
Mr Netanyahu is currently facing his biggest electoral challenge in more than a decade, with the Blue & White coalition, led by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, currently leading in the polls.
In Israel’s proportional representation system, no party can win a majority of seats, but the party with the most seats gets the first opportunity to form a governing coalition.
Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party has tried to suggest that, in order for Mr Gantz to form a coalition, he will need to make a deal with Arab parties in the Knesset, singling out Ahmad Tibi, head of the Arab Movement for Change [Ta’al], with the slogan ”It’s Bibi or Tibi.”
On election day in 2015, Mr Netanyahu released a video warning his supporters to go and vote because “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.”
Ms Regev, who as Justice Minister was responsible for the creation of the controversial Nation State Law, responded to Ms Sela on Facebook, saying: “We have no problem with the Arabs.
“We have in our party many Arab, Druze and Christian members. We have a problem with the hypocrisy and the masquerade ball of Lapid and Gantz, who are trying with all their might to hide from the public the fact that they’re left-wing, and are dressing up as centrists.”
Ms Sela responded in turn by saying she had received “disgusting messages” after her original Instagram post, but that these would “never prevent me from sharing my opinion”, and described it as “sad and depressing” that “an entire generation of children grew up in our country without hope for peace.
“If only politicians – whose voices are heard the loudest – were those who could give real hope for peace, equality and love instead of incitement and division.”
Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress, came to Ms Sela’s defence, saying she “inspires all of us.”
Ms Gadot, best known for starring in Wonder Woman, added: “This isn’t a matter of left or right, Jew or Arab, secular of religious, it’s about dialogue for peace and equality, and our tolerance for one another.”
Ms Gadot quoted the Jewish maxim to “Love your neighbor as yourself.
“The responsibility to sow hope and light for a better future for our children lies with us.”