Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Thursday said he was axing his upcoming visit to Israel for “lots of different reasons,” including a desire to take pressure off Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu on Wednesday rejected Trump’s controversial suggestion of banning Muslims from entering the United States should he be elected president in 2016, but said in a statement that he would still meet with the GOP frontrunner on December 28 during his visit to Israel.
Trump told Fox News Thursday that he wasn’t canceling the trip outright: “All I’m doing is postponing it, and I think that was the better alternative.”
Trump announced earlier in the day on Twitter that he would postpone his trip to Israel and reschedule his meeting with Netanyahu “after I become President of the US.”
I have decided to postpone my trip to Israel and to schedule my meeting with @Netanyahu at a later date after I become President of the U.S.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 10, 2015
After the announcement, Netanyahu’s office said it had nothing to do with the cancellation and had not spoken to Trump about the matter, Ynet news reported.
“I didn’t want to put [Netanyahu] under pressure, number one,” Trump said in the telephone interview on Fox and Friends. “I also did it because I’m in the midst of a very powerful campaign that’s going very well, and it was not that easy to do.”
He nonetheless voiced his support for Israel, adding, “I have a tremendous amount of support from the people of Israel.”
In an initial sign he may have been rethinking the trip, Trump on Wednesday reversed a previous statement about his plan to meet with Netanyahu during his trip, telling CNN he never said he would meet the Israeli premier.
Asked about comments he made at a Virginia rally last week in which he indicated that he would be meeting with Netanyahu, Trump said, “I didn’t say that, no.”
He added that he respects and likes Netanyahu “a lot,” but that “I’m going to Israel, I’m not saying who I’m meeting with.”
Netanyahu on Wednesday rejected Trump’s comments earlier in the week, in which the Republican presidential contender had said that all Muslims should be banned from entering the US, but said that he would still meet with Trump as scheduled later this month.
“The State of Israel respects all religions and strictly guarantees the rights of all its citizens. At the same time, Israel is fighting against militant Islam that targets Muslims, Christians and Jews alike and threatens the entire world,” the Prime Minister’s Office quoted Netanyahu as saying.
An official in the PMO said Netanyahu would meet with any presidential candidate from any party in the US elections, but added that Netanyahu “does not agree with every comment by every candidate.”
Trump’s comments have drawn anger in the US and around the world, including in Israel, where 37 lawmakers signed a petition Wednesday calling on Netanyahu to cancel the meeting with Trump.
The petition was initiated by Meretz MK Michal Rozin.
Most signatories were members of opposition parties, but MK Yaacov Margi (Shas) and Roy Volkman (Kulanu) also signed it. Rozin said several Likud MKs expressed criticism of Trump’s comments, but all refused to sign the petition.
Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi, chairman of Netanyahu’s coalition, told Army Radio that it would be “crazy” for the prime minister to boycott the leading Republican presidential candidate on his visit to Israel.
“We should not be the judges and the ethics committee of the Democrats or the Republicans,” Hanegbi said. “This is the Americans’ problem, they will choose who they vote for and not us.”
However, Hanegbi added, “We don’t say things like this, and what was said in the US does not represent us. What represents us is the Israeli reality in which a very large minority of Muslim citizens is at almost all levels of life like non-Muslims.”