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Left-wing Knesset members and a civil rights group severely criticized the remarks Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made Wednesday, in which he said Israel's Arab citizens constitute a threat to the Jewish state because of their increasing numbers, prompting accusations of racism.

"Netanyahu's demographic bomb is a stink bomb and racism," MK Ahmed Tibi (Hadash) said. "The day is not far when Netanyahu and his flock will set up roadblocks at the entrance to Arab villages in order to tie Arab women's tubes and spray them with spermicide."

Speaking at the Herzliya Conference on security issues, Netanyahu said he was not greatly concerned by the demographic problem posed by Palestinians, saying Israel would eventually relinquish control over lands where most of the Palestinians live and that he could not foresee a future in which "any sane Israeli" could try to make Palestinians either Israeli citizens or "enslaved subjects."

Instead, the finance minister blamed Israeli Arabs for tilting Israel's demographic balance, and said if the percentage of Arab citizens rises above its current level of about 20 percent, Israel will not be able to remain both Jewish and democratic. "If there is a demographic problem, and there is, it is with the Israeli Arabs who will remain Israeli citizens," Netanyahu said, adding that a good economy was necessary to attract Jewish immigrants.

Of Israel's 6.6 million citizens, about 1.3 million are Arabs. Another 3 million Arabs live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said it sent a letter of complaint to Netanyahu about the remarks.

"Comments like these fan the flames of hatred, racism and discrimination that are the daily reality of Israeli Arab citizens and undermine the basic trust that underpins a democratic society," the organization said in a statement.

Arab Israelis complain authorities discriminate against them in the distribution of state funds, particularly in local communities and education. Unemployment and poverty figures are higher in the community than among Jewish Israelis.

Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert defended the comments that some Knesset members decried as racist, saying Netanyahu had pointed to an existing demographic problem but that the more important problem lies "between the Jordan [River] and the [Mediterranean] Sea," Israel Radio reported Wednesday night.

MK Azmi Bishara of Balad (National Democratic Alliance) said that describing the original residents of the land as a demographic problem would be considered racist in any country.

"No people in the world like to hear that their actual existence causes a demographic problem," Bishara told Army Radio. "Even in undeveloped countries, this is thought of as racist."

MK Makhoul Issam Makhoul (Hadash) called Netanyahu a "racist danger to democracy."

"A leader who considers 20 percent of the population of Israel to be a demographic threat and treats them as an existential problem is himself a racist danger to democracy, sanity and the rule of law, and he should be disposed with immediately for the good of both peoples," he said.

MK Talab a-Sana (United Arab List) asked: "How would Netanyahu react if someone in the West or the U.S. said that the reproduction rate of the Haredi Jews was a demographic problem? Netanyahu has double standards."

Yossi Sarid (Meretz) said Netanyahu set in motion an irrevocable deterioration of relations between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs.

Sarid said it was amazing to see how "great leaders are exposed as small bigots. The Palestinian problem in the territories has not yet been solved, and already some insist on creating a new problem with Israeli Arabs." According to Sarid, "Netanyahu at Herzliya poured a fuel tanker on the bonfire of relations between Jewish and Arab citizens in Israel, and a thousand firemen won't be able to put out a fire that one light-hearted man ignited."

Netanyahu warned that a Jewish majority was necessary for Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic. "If their numbers will reach 35-40 percent of the country, than the Jewish state will be annulled," he said. He also said that if the Arabs remain at 20 percent of the population but relations are tense and violent, this will also harm the state's democratic fabric.

The economy is the single most important factor that will lead to Jews immigrating to Israel, he said. "I go mad when I see that because of low taxation in Moscow, there is now a capital flow there. If we want Jews to come here, we need a flourishing and dynamic economy. If we want Israeli Arabs to integrate, we need a flourishing and dynamic economy."

He said it was necessary to improve education standards, especially for Arab citizens. Netanyahu said that the separation fence would also help to prevent a "demographic spillover" of Palestinians from the territories.