September 27, 2023

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend the special plenary session opening the winter session of the Knesset, on October 23, 2017. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** ??? ?????? ?????? ?????? ???? ????? ????? ???? ???? ???? ???? ???? ????? ???

Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu issued criticism of its own party newsletter Thursday after comments there said opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party has become “another sectorial party for Jews from Arab countries.”

Text published in Russian-language bulletin lamented that rival party’s leaders ‘have the cultural and psychological norms of those ethnicities’.

The statement, made in a Russian-language bulletin, was evidently a general reference to Mizrahi Jews.

It further said “the problem” was that the party leaders “have the cultural and psychological norms of those ethnicities.”

Yisrael Beytenu issued a statement that condemned the remarks.

“We consider this to be a very serious statement that is unacceptable and does not reflect the position of Yisrael Beytenu,” the party said, adding that it would terminate its agreement with the text’s author.

Netanyahu was quick to address the newsletter as well, calling the comments “racist” and accusing Liberman of promoting inciting discourse ahead of elections.

“I condemn Liberman’s racist comments against Likud voters,” the former prime minister said in a tweet. “I’m proud that the Likud movement represents all Israeli citizens — Mizrahi, Ashkenazi, Arabs and Jews, secular and religious — and I’m proud of them all.”

The incident was reminiscent of a statement issued last month by Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party on its Russian-language campaign site.

That text claimed that Likud no longer represented the entirety of Israeli society.

“It abandoned its ideology and became a sectoral Sephardic party,” the site read, referring to Jews of North African and Middle Eastern heritage.

The remarks were seen as an attack on traditional religious Jews, Sephardi Jews and the right wing in general.

Following a backlash, Yesh Atid removed the statement from its site, strongly criticized it and said it was written by a third party without authorization.

Israel’s Sephardic-Ashkenazi divide has played a role in politics for decades.

Likud owed its first electoral victory in 1977 partly due to then-party chair Menachem Begin’s support among Middle Eastern and North African Jews, many of whom held the Ashkenazi-dominated Labor party and its predecessors responsible for the neglect and discrimination they faced when it governed the state in its early years.

Israelis head to the ballot box on November 1, for the fifth round of elections since 2019.

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