A former chief of the Israeli espionage agency Mossad, Shabtai Shavit, called Israeli voters who support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "mindless people who understand nothing."
Shavit made the remark in an interview with Israeli daily Maariv, which was published Thursday. He also said that the premier's political base is made up of people "whose threshold for normality is at the level of grass."
Netanyahu was quick to respond. Taking to Twitter, the prime minister wrote: "They've called us riffraff, amulet kissers, bots and now we're 'mindless people.' There's no limit to the left's arrogance regarding Likud voters. Our response will be coming at the ballot box."
The new election is scheduled for September 17 after Netanyahu failed to form a majority coalition government following the election in April.
Excerpts from the interview that Shavit gave to Maariv kicked up a storm on social media. The full interview will be published in the Friday edition of the newspaper.
In reaction to Shavit's comments, lawmaker Amir Peretz, who is running to head the Labor Party, tweeted: "Shabtai, you have played a part in Israel's security, but joining the arrogance club is not the way."
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Referring to one of the leaders of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, Bezalel Smotrich, Peretz added: "We have an ideological battle with the right wing of Smotrich and Netanyahu, and we need to be a beacon of light and unity to audiences that have not yet opened the door to us, so they feel like partners. We want to knock down the walls and ensure that [these] new audiences are the key to victory."
On Thursday morning, Shavit, speaking on Army Radio, attempted to explain his prior comments. "I am not disassociating myself from the quote," he said. "I was speaking about the equation of leadership and ethics and I expressed my opinion that it is impossible to bridge these two contradictions."
"No genuinely moral person can be reconciled with very, very morally low leadership, and that's an understatement," Shavit added. "As I see it and understand it, anyone who votes for a leader of low morals… has some deficit in their own morals."
Shavit claimed there was no racist or arrogant aspect to his comments. "If anyone was offended by what I said and thinks it came from a bad place, then I apologize," he said. "I had no intention of hurting anyone."