TEL AVIV — Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s controversial trip to Israel at the end of the month will be delayed until “a later date, after I become President of the U.S.,” Trump tweeted on Thursday.
He is postponing the trip for a number of reasons, first of which is to avoid putting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu under pressure, he said in an interview on Fox News.
“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 added. It would have been his first, and perhaps his only foreign trip as a GOP hopeful.
But following Trump’s inflammatory comments about barring Muslims form entering the U.S. in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, last week, the trip has become a PR nightmare for the Israeli prime minister.
Netanyahu, who has been in power since 2009 and has seen Israeli right-wing ideology move to the core of his government, is riding tumultuous diplomatic relations with the U.S., and high tension between the Jewish communities of the two countries.
Regarding Trump’s call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on,” and a reference to the “great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population,” Netanyahu has attempted to distance himself quietly from the billionaire real estate mogul.
Government sources who have requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject said, however, that after Trump’s anti-Muslim remarks, there was heated debate in Netanyahu’s office regarding the visit.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu’s aides released a statement to the press that said that while Netanyahu “rejects Donald Trump’s recent remarks about Muslims,” the meeting was still on, in line with standard protocol regarding the visits of American candidates.
The statement added, “The state of Israel respects all religions and strictly guarantees the rights of all its citizens.”
Then Trump let Netanyahu off the hook by bowing out.
In point of fact, Trump and Netanyahu have long traveled in the same circles. In 2013, Trump released a YouTube video endorsement of Netanyahu ahead of the elections, calling him “a great Prime Minister, a winner, and a terrific guy.”
Trump announced the Dec. 28 visit earlier this month in front of the Jewish Republican Coalition in Washington, D.C., during which he relied on tropes so hackneyed that many consider them anti-Semitic in an attempt to woo Jewish Americans.
He referenced his daughter Ivanka’s conversion to Judaism for her Jewish husband and said that he identified with the Jews’ penchant for business and negotiation—“the deal instinct,” as he called it. He claimed that because he also possessed this trait, he would be able to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, though the crowd booed him when he refused to disclose his position on Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital.
Israel is always a popular stop for many presidential candidates seeking to prove their competence in foreign affairs and win Jewish support in the States.
In August, Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee held a campaign fundraiser at the West Bank settlement of Shilo and used the opportunity to align himself publicly with the views of pro-settler Jews and evangelical Christians who argue that Judea and Samaria—the biblical name for the contested territory—is part of greater Israel, contrary to the official line of the U.S. and most of the international community.
But Trump has apparently crossed too many red lines, both in his own party and in Israel, where many worried that his brand of political demagoguery could further stoke an already combustible situation.
On his planned Dec. 28 visit, Trump was expected to visit the Temple Mount, a sacred site both to Jews and Muslims that has been the flashpoint for the latest spate of violence, which has killed 22 Israelis and foreign nationals and at least 109 Palestinians, including 74 whom Israeli authorities identified as attackers.
In recent months, tensions there have been steadily accelerating as high-ranking Jewish politicians have expressed their intent to break the status quo and rebuild a Third Temple on the Jordanian-controlled site. Netanyahu, in response, has only mildly rebuked such remarks.
“We have enough racists who are trying to make our shared life in Israel impossible,” wrote Ari Shavit in the left-leaning daily Haaretz. “We have no need for imported racism from Palm Beach.”
Thirty-seven Israeli parliamentarians, including not only opposition, but two members of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, signed a petition calling on the government to cancel the trip and Trump’s official meeting with the prime minister.
“While leaders around the world are condemning the racist and outrageous remarks by the Republican presidential candidate, Netanyahu embraces him warmly,” wrote parliamentary member Michal Rozin, the author of the petition. “Their meeting at the end of the month lends support to [Trump’s] racist comments, and in this disgraces the democratic character of the State of Israel and hurts its Muslim citizens.”
The controversy comes as Netanyahu is attempting to defend himself against accusations of racism among his own detractors.
In a tight electoral race in March, Netanyahu warned that Arabs were voting “in droves” and that his own right-wing constituencies should be equally motivated if they were truly concerned about the fate of their country.
The Arab population of Israel makes up 20 percent of the country’s general population, about 1.5 million, many of whom complain that under Netanyahu’s right-wing administration they have become subject to increasing discrimination in housing, health care, and economic opportunities. They have also strongly opposed Netanyahu’s so-called Jewish nation bill, which, if approved by the Knesset, will define the state as Jewish and would likely deepen already severe ethnic and religious divides.
Netanyahu, of course, has built much of his legacy on creating divisions, both in Israel and in the U.S. In March, he breached American diplomatic protocol and fed off of partisan tensions in order to pave the way for a speech to the U.S. Congress on the grave dangers of the Iran deal. It damaged his relations with Israel’s main ally, but it probably helped get him elected.
Israel’s prime minister is nothing if not calculating. But Trump, a wild card and a wild man, was just too hot to handle.