Israel's Netanyahu apologizes to country's Arab minority

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Israel's Netanyahu apologizes to country's Arab minority
A screen shows an exit poll estimation of the first results of Israel's parliamentary election with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin's Netanyahu Likud party and Herzog Isaac centre-left Zionist Union neck-and-neck in Tel Aviv on March 17, 2015. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
KIRYAT YEARIM, ISRAEL - MARCH 17: An Orthodox Jewish man casts his ballot at a polling station on election day on March 17, 2015 in Kiryat Ye'arim, Israel. Israel's general election voting has begun today as polls show on that Chairman of the Zionist Union party, Isaac Herzog stands as the only rival to current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 3: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before joint session of Congress, on March, 03, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went neck and neck with Zionist Union Party leader Issac Herzog but ultimately pulled away in the election.
Co-leaders of the Zionist Union party, Israeli Labour Party leader Isaac Herzog (L) and Israeli MP Tzipi Livni, speak to the media in Modiin, near Tel Aviv, on March 17, 2015 as Israelis vote in a close-fought election pitting the centre left against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is fighting for his political survival after six years in power. AFP PHOTO / GIL COHEN-MAGEN (Photo credit should read GIL COHEN MAGEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as he opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on February 1, 2015. AFP PHOTO / POOL / GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
As Israeli soldiers cast early votes in Israel's upcoming election, the outlook for sitting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not good. Challengers Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni -- whom Netanyahu booted from the government late last year -- and their Zionist Union look likely to win the most seats in Israel's parliament, with Netanyahu's Likud Party about four seats behind.
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - MARCH 17: Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu celebrate as election results come in at his election campaign headquarters on March 17, 2015 in Tel Aviv, Israel. After the ballot boxes were closed at 10 P.M. Tuesday, exit polls showed the two main contenders, Netanyahu of Likud and Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union party, were neck and neck with 27 Knesset seats each, with a slight lead for Likud. Netanyahu has announced a 'great victory'. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 3: Anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews protest Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to Congress outside the U.S. Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C. Netanyahu will speak to Congress on Iran's nuclear ambitions and President Obama's emerging deal with Tehran. (Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 3: An Anti-Zionist Orthodox Jew protests Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to Congress outside the U.S. Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C. Netanyahu will speak to Congress on Iran's nuclear ambitions and President Obama's emerging deal with Tehran. (Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images)
Israeli Likud Party supporters react to the exit polls while they wait for the announcement of the first official results of Israel's parliamentary elections on March 17, 2015 at the party's headquarters in the city of Tel Aviv. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rightwing Likud party is neck-and-neck with the centre-left Zionist Union in the general election, exit polls said. AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
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JERUSALEM (AP) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Israel's Arab citizens on Monday for remarks he made during last week's parliament election that offended members of the community.

The move appeared to be an attempt to heal rifts and mute criticism at home and in the United States. Netanyahu drew accusations of racism in Israel, especially from its Arab minority, and a White House rebuke when, just a few hours before polling stations were to close across the country, he warned that Arab citizens were voting "in droves."

But President Barack Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough, rejected Netanyahu's attempt to distance himself from his comments, telling an Israel advocacy group Monday that the U.S. can't just overlook what Netanyahu said on the eve of his re-election.

Netanyahu, whose Likud Party won re-election in the vote, met with members of the Arab community at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem on Monday and apologized.

He said he knows his "comments last week offended some Israeli citizens and offended members of the Israeli-Arab community."

"This was never my intent. I apologize for this," Netanyahu said. "I view myself as the prime minister of each and every citizen of Israel, without any prejudice based on religion, ethnicity or gender."

"I view all Israeli citizens as partners in the building of a prosperous and safe state of Israel, for all Israelis," he also said.

A recently established alliance of four small, mostly Arab parties called the Joint List made unprecedented gains in the March 17 election, earning enough votes to make it the third-largest party in Israel's parliament. Arab citizens make up 20 percent of Israel's population. Equality is guaranteed in Israel's laws but many Arabs have long complained of discrimination, mainly in the job and housing market.

Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, told channel 2 TV that Netanyahu's apology was not accepted.

"This is not a real apology," Odeh said. "He incited against citizens who were exercising their basic right to vote for Knesset."

Odeh also accused Netanyahu of "zigzagging" by saying one thing one day and a different another.

In the final days of the campaign, Netanyahu angered the U.S. by taking a tough stance toward the Palestinians and by saying a Palestinian state will not be established on his watch in the current climate of regional chaos and violence. Resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in a two state solution is a key U.S. foreign policy priority.

In his speech to J Street, an Israel advocacy group that is sharply critical of Netanyahu, McDonough warned Israel against annexing the West Bank, where Palestinians hope to establish their future state. He said Netanyahu's prediction that a Palestinian state wouldn't come about on his watch was "very troubling" and questioned Netanyahu's broader commitment to the two-state solution the U.S. and Israel have officially supported for years.

"We cannot simply pretend that these comments were never made," McDonough said.

Obama's decision to dispatch his chief of staff to speak to J Street was seen as another sign that Obama intends to take a tougher tack toward Netanyahu.

Israelis and Palestinians are closely watching to see how U.S. policy will change in practical terms after Netanyahu's success in the elections. Obama has said the U.S. must reevaluate its approach to pursuing Mideast peace because of Netanyahu's comments, and has entertained speculation the U.S. will be less willing to come to Israel's defense in the United Nations. The U.S. has voted against U.N. resolutions supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state, insisting the matter should be negotiated directly with Israel.

Netanyahu's tough talk was part of a last-ditch attempt to spur his more hard-line supporters to the polls after it appeared he was losing voters to a more hawkish party.

Netanyahu defended his election-day remarks in the days after the vote. He told NBC last Thursday that he remains committed to Palestinian statehood - if conditions in the region improve - and to the two-state vision first spelled out in a landmark 2009 speech at Israel's Bar Ilan University. "I haven't changed my policy," he said. "I never retracted my speech."

He told NBC that his government has spent billions in Arab towns to upgrade infrastructure, schools and narrow gaps.

Earlier on Monday, Netanyahu secured a majority of backers in the new parliament and will later be tasked with forming the next government.

Israel's ceremonial president, Reuven Rivlin, has been meeting with the parties in parliament to hear their recommendations before appointing who will form the next coalition government. Kulanu, a new centrist party gave its nod to Netanyahu on Monday, giving him 61 backers out of the 120 in parliament.

Netanyahu appears poised to set up a coalition with hawkish, centrist and religious parties.

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