Knesset member under fire after dismissing concerns that Israelis cannot afford food

Tzachi Hanegbi, left, seen here with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in December 2019, is under fire for minimizing complaints of poverty amid the pandemic. Photo: Abir Sultan/AFP via Getty Images

Marcy Oster

JERUSALEM (JTA) — A leading member of Israel’s government has apologized for dismissing the idea that many Israelis cannot afford food due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Tzachi Hanegbi, a member of the Likud party who serves as a minister without a portfolio, made the comment on Friday afternoon on the “Ofira and Berkovic” talk show on Israel’s Channel 12. He called the idea that some Israelis literally have nothing to eat “bullshit” and “exaggerated.”

More than 1 million Israelis are out of work and businesses are closing every day due to the financial fallout of the global pandemic.

Hanegbi immediately faced criticism, and on Saturday, he tweeted an apology, saying that he had spoken imprecisely because of the intensity of the discussion.

“I wanted to tell the interviewers that their extreme and outspoken criticism of the government produces public anxiety instead of hope,” he wrote. “I wanted to say that the government that I am part of works day and night to get Israel back on track for a healthy and growing economy.”

The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement Saturday night disavowing Hanegbi’s comments. “The prime minister regrets comments saying the distress of the coronavirus isn’t real,” said the statement, which did not specifically name Hanegbi.

Hanegbi has made controversial public assertions before. In November 2018, he called the hundreds of rockets fired by Hamas in Gaza at southern Israeli communities “minor” because they were not targeted at major cities such as Tel Aviv. He said then that he had misspoken.