, Washington, Dec 11 – Donald Trump announced he was postponing his planned trip to Israel, just a day after the Jewish state’s prime minister criticized the White House hopeful’s inflammatory anti-Muslim proposals.
The frontrunner for the 2016 Republican nomination was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on December 28, but changed course after his call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States met with a chorus of international condemnation.
Facing a backlash over his meeting with Trump, Netanyahu’s office on Wednesday issued a statement saying the prime minister “rejects” his remarks on Muslims, and that their planned encounter was simply in line with an established practice of meeting visiting US presidential candidates.
Trump explained his decision saying he did not want to put “pressure” on Netanyahu.
“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,” he tweeted.
Speaking later on Fox News, Trump said: “I didn’t want to put him under pressure.”
Recalling he had once campaigned in support of Netanyahu, Trump insisted he had “a lot of friends from Israel and a tremendous amount of support from the people of Israel.”
White House hopefuls often visit Israel as part of efforts to bolster their foreign policy credentials.
Beyond that, Netanyahu has regularly expressed support for Republicans, and the party’s candidates have made firm US backing for Israel a central plank of their campaigns.
But the Trump visit had already stirred strong opposition in Israel, with a range of lawmakers opposing it because of his stance towards Muslims.
The White House weighed in on his decision, with spokesman Josh Earnest saying “most people are relieved that he reconsidered.”
– ‘Carnival barker’ –
The visit would have come at a time of acute tensions in Israel, which is battling a wave of Palestinian gun, knife and car-ramming attacks.
Since October 1, almost daily attacks and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers have killed 113 on the Palestinian side, 17 Israelis, an American and an Eritrean.
There were serious concerns a visit from Trump would further inflame tensions — among Palestinians, the vast majority of whom are Muslim, as well as the million plus Muslims who live in Israel.
On Thursday, Trump sought to deflect attention from the U-turn over his visit, with barbed remarks about the US president’s relations with Israel.
“Believe me, I think that the worst thing that ever happened to Israel happened to be Barack Obama,” he said on Fox News.
On CNN, he claimed, “I’m doing good for the Muslims.”
Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States came in the wake of the mass shooting in California by a Muslim couple thought to have been radicalized.
The proposal triggered a global shockwave, with almost half a million people in Britain signing a petition calling for Trump to be banned from the country.
Earnest said the proposal should disqualify Trump from the US presidency, deriding him as a “carnival barker” whose campaign belonged in the “dustbin of history.”
Fellow White House hopeful and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton meanwhile said of Trump: “I no longer think he is funny.”
– ‘I’m running as a Republican’ –
The billionaire real estate magnate currently leads Republican polls by double digit margins over his nearest rivals.
In the latest major nationwide poll, conducted by the New York Times and CBS News released Thursday, Trump had the support of 35 percent of Republican primary voters, his strongest yet.
That was more than double the backing of his nearest competitors, Senator Ted Cruz who had 16 percent, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson (13 percent) and Senator Marco Rubio (nine percent).
The poll also found that nearly two-thirds of American voters said they were concerned or frightened by the prospect of a Trump presidency.
A separate NBC News and Wall Street Journal survey indicated that a majority of Americans oppose Trump’s Muslim plan, with 57 percent of adults against the idea and a quarter for it.
Trump on Thursday appeared to back down from a warning that he may launch a third party campaign.
“Look, it’s very simple. I’m leading in every poll,” Trump said on Fox.
“But, my deal would be they treat me fairly and I’m going to treat them fairly. I don’t want to leave,” he added.
“No, I’m running — I’m running as a Republican.”