JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday (Mar 13) slammed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a "dictator" and "a joke" in the latest exchange of insults between the two leaders.
Turkey on Tuesday denounced Netanyahu's "blatant racism" after he called Israel the nation-state of "the Jewish people" only, not all its citizens.
Netanyahu's initial comment had come amid an online spat sparked by Israel's right-wing firebrand culture minister Miri Regev, ahead of April elections and subsequently joined by Israeli Hollywood star Gal Gadot.
Regev, a member of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, had in a TV interview warned voters not to support its main rival because it would ally with Israeli Arab parties -- a highly unlikely scenario.
Israeli model and actress Rotem Sela responded on Instagram, asking: "When the hell will someone in this government convey to the public that Israel is a state of all its citizens and that all people were created equal?"
Netanyahu reacted with his own Instagram post, telling Sela: "Israel is not a state of all its citizens."
"According to the basic nationality law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people -- and only it," he said, referring to a deeply controversial piece of legislation passed by his right-wing government last year.
Gadot, star of "Wonder Woman", jumped to Sela's defence.
"Love your neighbour as yourself," Gadot wrote on Instagram late Sunday.
"This isn't a matter of right or left. Jew or Arab. Secular or religious," she wrote. "It's a matter of dialogue, of dialogue for peace and security and of our tolerance of one towards the other."
On Tuesday, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin weighed in on Netanyahu's comments.
Writing on Twitter in both Turkish and English, he said: "I strongly condemn this blatant racism and discrimination."
Netanyahu struck back in a statement from his office early Wednesday.
"Turkey's dictator Erdogan attacks Israel's democracy while Turkish journalists and judges fill his prisons," it read.
"What a joke!"
Kalin was swift to respond on Twitter, accusing Netanyahu of attacking Erdogan "for exposing him" after the Israeli premier's "racist remarks" towards Arabs and Muslims.
"The apartheid state he leads occupies Palestinian lands, kills women & children & imprisons Palestinians in their own land," he wrote.
"Lies and pressure will not hide your crimes."
Turkey and Israel have tense relations and Erdogan, who regards himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause, is a vocal critic of Israeli policies.
The two countries in 2016 ended a six-year rift triggered by the Israeli storming of a Gaza-bound ship that left 10 Turkish activists dead and led to a downgrading of diplomatic ties.
Netanyahu has been accused by critics of demonising Israeli Arabs, who make up some 17.5 per cent of the population, in a bid to boost right-wing turnout for April polls.
He is facing a tough challenge from a centrist political alliance led by former military chief of staff Benny Gantz and ex-finance minister Yair Lapid.
After the polls, he will also face a hearing to defend himself against corruption allegations which have dogged his campaign.