JERUSALEM — Donald Trump on Thursday called off a planned December trip to Israel, shelving what was shaping up to be an awkward visit by the Republican presidential front-runner following comments that managed to offend Muslims and Jews alike.
Dozens of Israeli lawmakers had called for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel the Dec. 28 meeting with Trump. The prime minister, wary of being seen as endorsing Trump’s positions despite his own Republican leanings, had given only guarded remarks, saying he would honour a previously scheduled meeting but at the same time rejecting Trump’s calls to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
Trump announced his decision on his Twitter feed, saying he would reschedule “at a later date after I become President of the U.S.”
Trump told Fox News there were many reasons he decided to hold off on a trip, among them that he didn’t want to put Netanyahu in a bind.
“In fact, I did a campaign ad for him, and he’s a good man, but I didn’t want to put him under pressure,” Trump said. “I also did it because I’m in the midst of a powerful campaign that’s going very well.”
Trump has had the GOP in turmoil over his call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S. in the wake of last week’s mass shooting by an Islamic militant couple that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California. Critics say the proposal is racist and unconstitutional.
Trump, who has maintained a wide lead in most early polling, also sparked criticism among many American Jews last week after speaking to a gathering of Jewish donors.
He was booed after refusing to endorse Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel — a key Israeli position. The United States, like most of the international community, refuses to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and says the city’s status must be resolved in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Trump also made remarks that some said promoted Jewish stereotypes. “I know why you’re not going to support me: you’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” Trump said. “You want to control your own politician.”
He also said, “I’m a negotiator, like you folks.”
Marc Zell, the co-chairman of Republicans Overseas Israel, said that there had been no pressure from the organization, which represents Republican expatriates living in Israel, for Trump not to come.
But Zell, stressing that he was expressing his personal opinion, said it was all for the best that Trump had cancelled.
“He’s welcome to visit Israel, but I think it’s better that he didn’t come because his visit here would have been marred by a loud dissenting voice coming from all sectors of the population, including me,” Zell said.
He said Trump’s comments on Muslims and Jews were in “poor taste” and showed that the real estate mogul and reality TV star does not have what it takes to be president.
Netanyahu’s office declined comment on the cancellation.
A visit to Israel is considered a rite of passage for U.S. presidential candidates as they seek to burnish their foreign policy credentials and appeal to Jewish American voters, and Netanyahu has hosted scores of candidates and elected American officials over the years.
But a visit by the outspoken Trump had put the Israeli leader in a bind.
Over a three-decade political career, Netanyahu has sought to portray himself as the world’s foremost expert on Islamic extremism. Yet the Israeli leader has been careful to differentiate between extremist groups and the Muslim religion in general.
No stranger to controversy, Netanyahu came under heavy criticism early this year when he warned that Arabs were voting “in droves” as he made an urgent election-day plea to supporters. Nearly a fifth of Israel’s citizens are Muslim Arabs, and getting too close to Trump could risk triggering renewed accusations of racism.
“Privately, I’m guessing Netanyahu is rather enjoying the global row over Trump’s call to prevent Muslims entering the United States until lawmakers can ‘figure out what is going on’ with radical Islam,” wrote commentator David Horovitz in the Times of Israel website. “For one thing, Trump’s radical soundbites make some of the prime minister’s comments — the Arabs are voting in droves — look relatively moderate by comparison. For another, Netanyahu indisputably shares the root concern over Islamic terrorism at the heart of Trump’s uncalibrated declaration.”
Netanyahu’s remarks late Wednesday appear to have played a key role in Trump’s decision. While Netanyahu has strong ideological connections to the Republican Party, he gave the coolest of welcomes to Trump.
The Israeli leader rejected Trump’s comments on Muslims and said his country “respects all religions” and that he would go ahead with the previously scheduled meeting just as he would meet any presidential candidate who visits Israel. He also stressed the meeting did not amount to an endorsement of Trump.
Opposition lawmaker Michal Rozin of the dovish Meretz party on Wednesday initiated a petition urging Netanyahu to condemn Trump’s “racist” comments and to cancel the meeting unless the American retracts them. At least 37 lawmakers, nearly one-third of the parliament, signed the petition.
“Imagine that a country or a candidate would say entrance to Jews is forbidden. The whole world would stand up in protest, saying this is a racist anti-Semite. A racist like this has no place here among us,” Issawi Frej, a fellow member of Meretz, told Israel Radio.
Like the other Republican candidates, Trump — whose daughter, Ivanka, converted to Judaism — has long worked to portray himself as a strong supporter of Israel. In a 2013 video endorsing Netanyahu’s re-election, Trump called himself a “big fan of Israel” as Hebrew lettering scrolled below his face.
During the current campaign, Trump’s Republican rivals have questioned his foreign policy bona fides, suggesting he lacks the depth and diplomatic skill to tackle crises in the Mideast and elsewhere. Trump has argued his vast experience brokering business deals qualifies him to negotiate with foreign leaders, and he has cited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a prime example.
Yet in contrast to other Republican candidates who have been reluctant to criticize Israel, Trump questioned in an AP interview this month whether Israel was committed to the peace process, a concern he said extended to the Palestinians as well.
Palestinian officials welcomed news of the cancellation.
Ahmad Majdalani, an aide to President Mahmoud Abbas, said Trump’s visit meant “nothing to us.”
“We know he was coming to Israel to get Jewish lobby’s support. We were happy that we weren’t on his visit agenda because he would add nothing to us, particularly after his statements against Muslims,” he said.