Lieberman Blasts Netanyahu for Talks with Arab List

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to mend fences with Israel's Arabs at a meeting Thursday with the head of the Arab parties in parliament, Ayman Odeh, after polarizing election-day remarks.

Netanyahu had caused an uproar when during the March 17 vote he warned that Arabs were being mobilized "in droves" to the ballot boxes, putting his rightwing rule at risk.

His Likud party ended up winning 30 out of the 120 seats in parliament, leading Netanyahu to form a new coalition government last week but increasing tensions with Israel's Arab minority, who constitute some 20 percent of the population.

Following the meeting, their first since the election, Netanyahu said he had stressed to Odeh the need "to continue reducing the gaps in Israeli society."

He also proposed "a regular dialogue between a government team consisting of the relevant ministers and Arab MKs (deputies) in order to formulate a socio-economic plan that is as broadly based as possible," his office read.

Odeh said the meeting was "not simple."

"I came here today with great responsibility as a representative of the largest minority in the country, a minority that as part of a despicable election tactic, was incited against by the prime minister and its very citizenship was questioned," he said.

"I relayed this message to the premier too, and I reiterate and say it's unacceptable that a prime minister speaks against citizens voting," he said.

Odeh, who heads the Joint List that groups the main Arab parties in parliament and won 13 seats in the election, said he raised with Netanyahu the need for "planning reform for construction in Arab locales" and a halt to home demolitions.

Arab Israelis -- the descendents of Palestinians who stayed on after the Jewish state was established in 1948 -- say that state discrimination makes it difficult for them to obtain planning permission to expand their communities, forcing them to resort to illegal construction which is liable to demolition.

Odeh also called on the state to recognize the dozens of Bedouin villages which currently have no official recognition, and to advance employment, a fair allocation of state funds and education in the Arab sector.

Prior to the meeting, former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman urged Netanyahu to cancel talks with Odeh, accusing him of granting legitimacy to "terror supporters."

"This man represents a list of terror supporters in the Israeli parliament," he said of Odeh.

Lieberman, who heads the hardline anti-Arab Yisrael Beitenu party now in opposition, stepped down as Israel's top diplomat earlier this month.

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