Controversial Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump announced Thursday he was “postponing” his Israel trip, saying he would meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after he is “elected US president.”
The GOP front-runner, who has drawn scads of criticism for a proposal to ban Muslims from entering the US, was scheduled to meet with Netanyahu on December 28 during a trip here.
Netanyahu’s office on Wednesday defended the scheduled meeting — which had been sharply criticized by Israeli lawmakers — as a decision made in line with a policy of agreeing to meetings with presidential candidates.
“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 US,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
“I didn’t want to put him under pressure,” Trump told Fox News. “I also did it because I’m in the midst of a very powerful campaign that’s going very well and it (the trip) was not that easy to do.”
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.
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,” in a CNN interview recorded Wednesday.
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.”
Last week Trump told the Virginia rally “I’m going to Israel, and I’ll be meeting with Bibi Netanyahu, who’s a great guy.”
Netanyahu on Wednesday had 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.”