As President Donald Trump’s executive order suspending refugee arrivals and barring visas for travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries continued to send shock waves across the US, Europe and Middle East Sunday, Israeli ministers maintained complete silence over the move.
While a number of cabinet members offered reasons as to why they preferred not to respond, or why they felt it would be inappropriate to do so, every single one of the 22 ministers either declined or did not acknowledge repeated requests from The Times of Israel to comment on the issue.
President Reuven Rivlin, known for his inclusive message toward Israel’s Arab-Israeli population and repeated dictum that “we are not at war with Islam,” also declined a request to comment.
Barring a tweet from the left-wing Meretz party leader and a short statement by the Joint (Arab) List chair, there was also no response from the heads of the major opposition parties. They, too, declined requests from The Times of Israel to make statements.
In contrast, Trump’s order, announced on Saturday, was met with near-immediate condemnation from world leaders across the globe, with presidents, prime ministers and senior government members from the UK, France, Germany, Canada, Turkey, Iran and a host of other countries panning the initiative.
While ignoring the sweeping order to suspend refugee arrivals and bar visas for travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did praise Trump’s push for a border wall with Mexico, saying that Israel’s fence on the Egyptian border had successfully stemmed illegal immigration.
“President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter on Saturday night.
President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel's southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea ????????????????
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) January 28, 2017
Following the tweet, The Times of Israel asked the Prime Minister’s Office why, given that both policies relate to border security, he had volunteered his opinion of the Mexican border wall, but would not do so on the entry ban of visitors from certain Muslim countries. A spokesman for the prime minister declined to comment. He would also not comment on whether Trump had in any way asked Netanyahu to voice support for the border wall.
Thirteen months ago, during the hotly contested and at times vicious campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Netanyahu joined world leaders in condemning Trump’s announcement that he was planning a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
Two days later, amid calls from the Israeli opposition for him to cancel a planned meeting with the then-GOP frontrunner in Israel, the PMO said that while Netanyahu “rejects Donald Trump’s recent remarks about Muslims,” he would still meet with him as scheduled.
“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 PMO quoted Netanyahu as saying, stressing that the meeting was set up before Trump had made his comments and that it did not mean that the prime minister supported the Republican candidate’s views.
Days later however, Trump canceled his trip to Israel, citing “lots of different reasons,” including a desire to take pressure off Netanyahu. In a subsequent interview he said that the prime minister’s criticism was “inappropriate.” The two didn’t end up meeting meet until late September 2016 during a trip by Netanyahu to the US.
Asked if Netanyahu had changed his view on a Muslim travel ban since December 2015, his spokesman declined to answer on Sunday.
Netanyahu’s ministers, hailing from a total of six different political parties, were equally reticent, with none releasing public statements on the issue and all declining to answer questions on the ban on refugees and citizens of seven Muslim countries, or on Trump’s subsequent statements suggesting he may introduce a religious test for people coming from Syria in order to allow Christians to evade persecution.
A spokesperson for Education and Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) said that he only answered questions related to his cabinet portfolios, while Minister for Social Equality Gila Gamilel (Likud) said the issue was an internal US debate. Spokespeople for the other 20 cabinet members gave no answer to questions posed to them.
In all, 37 MKs signed the December 2015 petition calling on Netanyahu to cancel his meeting with Trump over Trump’s pledge to ban Muslim immigration. While most of the signatories were members of opposition parties, they were joined at the time by coalition MKs Yaacov Margi (Shas) and Roy Volkman (Kulanu). Both were unavailable to comment on Sunday.
The silence was not limited to coalition parties. On Sunday night, Joint (Arab) List leader Ayman Odeh became only the second among all the party leaders in the Knesset to address the executive order.
“That the head of a state uses the laws of the country to discriminate and put down parts of the population is a sign of the rise of totalitarian regimes,” Odeh said in a statement released to the press following a query from The Times of Israel.
“I am proud and excited to see masses of Americans taking to the streets against Islamophobia and racism. Joint demonstrations in the streets without distinction of race and nationality is the hope for the future, for both the United States and here,” he said.
Odeh joined Meretz leader Zehava Galon, who a day earlier tweeted her opposition to Trump’s moves, calling it a “terrible moral disgrace,” and quoting figures that of 3,252,493 refugees to have been accepted into the US since 975, only 20 committed terror attacks.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who heads the Zionist Union, along with Yesh Atid party chair Yair Lapid, joined cabinet ministers in declining to comment on the ban.
A spokesperson for Lapid said he did not get involved in internal US issues. The spokesperson pointed to a tweet Lapid posted Saturday night criticizing Netanyahu for his support of the Mexico border wall and warning it would damage US bipartisan support of Israel and harm Jerusalem’s relationship with Mexico.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.