A planned meeting this month between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump set off a chorus of criticism here on Wednesday, leading the Israeli leader to dissociate himself from Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
Netanyahu’s office said the meeting, planned for Dec. 28, was scheduled two weeks ago, well before Trump’s comments on Muslims, and that the prime minister was prepared to meet any visiting American presidential candidate who requested a meeting.
But Trump let Netanyahu off the hook Thursday, tweeting that his travel to Israel had been canceled. He said any meeting with Netanyahu would come after he’d become president. That would put off such a meeting until 2017 – if it ever takes place.
Trump’s call Monday for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on” brought a strong reaction here, where sensitivities are high over exclusion of individuals on the basis of religion.
Trump’s remarks drew criticism from some members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, and 37 Israeli parliament members signed a letter urging Netanyahu to cancel his meeting with the candidate.
As an Israeli citizen, I ask that the state treat the racism against me in the same way it would relate to racism against Jews.
Issawi Freij, an Arab member of the Meretz party
In response, Netanyahu’s office issued a statement distancing him from the anti-Muslim rhetoric without stepping back from the meeting.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu rejects Donald Trump’s recent remarks about Muslims,” the statement said. “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.”
Netanyahu’s policy of meeting all visiting presidential candidates “does not represent an endorsement of any candidate or his or her views,” the statement added. “Rather, it is an expression of the importance that Prime Minister Netanyahu attaches to the strong alliance between Israel and the United States.”
News of the planned meeting drew harsh criticism from lawmakers representing Israel’s Arab minority, which is mostly Muslim.
Ahmad Tibi, a member of the main Arab party, the Joint List, called Trump a “neo-Nazi” and said he should be banned from addressing parliament.
“As an Israeli citizen, I ask that the state treat the racism against me in the same way it would relate to racism against Jews,” said Issawi Freij, an Arab member of the leftist Meretz party.
I recommend fighting terrorist and extremist Islam, but I would not declare a boycott of Muslims in general.
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz
Michal Rozin, a Meretz lawmaker who drafted the letter to Netanyahu, said that “while leaders around the world condemn the Republican presidential candidate’s racist and outrageous and remarks, Netanyahu is warmly embracing him.”
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who is close to Netanyahu, also criticized Trump’s rhetoric. “I recommend fighting terrorist and extremist Islam, but I would not declare a boycott of Muslims in general,” he told Israeli Army radio.
Netanyahu refused to meet with Jimmy Carter, a vocal critic of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians, when the former president visited Israel in April. On the eve of Israel’s elections in March, Netanyahu rallied rightist supporters by warning that Arab voters were coming out “in droves” to the polls.
Trump’s call to ban Muslim entry to the U.S. has also been criticized by American Jewish groups. Jonathan Greenblatt, leader of the Anti-Defamation League, said American Jews “know all too well what can happen when a particular religious group is singled out for stereotyping and scapegoating.”
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.