By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A remark by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel is a state for Jews alone has heated up an election row over equal rights that has drawn in the president and even the Israeli who plays Wonder Woman over alleged prejudice against Israeli Arabs.
Ahmad Tibi, a veteran lawmaker in Israel’s parliament, said on Army Radio on Tuesday that election day is the only time when “Jewish and Arab voters have an equal voice” and Arab citizens should vote against what he termed persistent prejudice.
Urging the country’s 20 percent Arab minority, which traditionally has voted for Arab political parties, to head to the ballot box on April 9, Tibi said they face “prejudice and wide gaps” with Jewish Israelis all other times of the year.
Netanyahu’s attitude towards Israeli Arabs, many of whom also regard themselves as Palestinians, has emerged as a hot topic in the closely contested race.
President Reuven Rivlin, in comments widely seen in Israel as criticism directed at the right-wing Netanyahu, tweeted on Monday that there has been “an unacceptable discourse towards Israel’s Arab citizens” during the campaign.
“In the State of Israel – absolute equal rights for all its citizens,” Rivlin, whose post is largely ceremonial, wrote on Twitter, in Hebrew and Arabic.
He made the comments after Netanyahu said “Israel is not a state of all its citizens”, referring to a contentious law passed last year that declared Israel the “nation-state” of Jewish people alone – a phrase used by Netanyahu almost word for word in an Instagram post.
Israel’s Arab citizens and other critics of the legislation condemned it as racist. Netanyahu said the “nation-state” definition does not mean equal rights are not afforded to Arabs.
The election campaign had taken a star turn over the weekend when Rotem Sela, a popular Israeli TV host and actress, lashed out on Instagram at what she saw as anti-Arab comments by an outspoken Netanyahu loyalist, Culture Minister Miri Regev.
In a television interview, Regev had echoed a theme Netanyahu has used frequently – that his strongest rival in the election, former armed forces chief Benny Gantz, wants to enlist Arab political allies to defeat him.
“And what’s the problem with Arabs???’” Sela wrote. “Oh my God, there are also Arab citizens in this country.”
Netanyahu took to his own Instagram account to chide Sela, saying an “important correction” needed to be made. It was in that posting that Netanyahu remarked on Israel not being a state of all its citizens.
All that was enough to prompt Israeli actress Gal Gadot, Hollywood’s Wonder Woman, to come to Sela’s defence, eliciting a multitude of differing responses on social media.
“Rotem, sister, you are an inspiration to all of us,” Gadot wrote in Hebrew on Instagram, calling for “peace, equality and tolerance” for everyone.
(Editing by Maayan Lubell, Editing by William Maclean)