The head of an Arab party in Israel who made history last year by joining the governing coalition said on Thursday he would not use the word “apartheid” to describe relations between Jews and Arabs in the country.
Amnesty International last week joined two other well-known human rights groups in saying that Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians within its borders and in the occupied territories amounts to apartheid.
Israel rejects those allegations as anti-Semitic, saying that, among other things, they ignore the rights and freedom enjoyed by Arab citizens.
“I would not call it apartheid,” Mansour Abbas said in response to a question at an online event organised by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank.
Mr Abbas said he was in the coalition and could join the government if he wanted to. He said his role as political leader was "to try to bridge the gaps".
“I prefer to describe the reality in objective ways,” he said. “If there is discrimination in a certain field, then we will say that there is discrimination in that specific field.”
Israel captured the territory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and the Palestinians want it to form the main part of their future state.
Mr Abbas leads the United Arab List, known in Hebrew as Ra’am, a small Islamist party that gave crucial support to the coalition now governing Israel, which includes parties from across the political spectrum.
Arabs make up about 20 per cent of Israel’s population of nearly 9.5 million. They have citizenship, including the right to vote, and have a major presence in the medical profession and universities, among other fields.
But they face widespread discrimination.
The rights groups say Israel only grants citizenship to a minority of the Palestinians under its control in an system designed to ensure a Jewish majority as possible.
Israel views such claims as an assault on its existence, saying its policies are designed to ensure its survival and well-being.
Mr Abbas said he was focused on bringing Jews and Arabs together to address social and economic challenges.
“I’m usually trying not to be judgmental," he said. "I’m not trying to say you’re racist or the state is racist, or this is an apartheid state or not an apartheid state."