US presidential candidate Donald Trump will visit Israel to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on December 28, even as he faces fierce criticism, including in the Jewish state, over anti-Muslim comments.
An Israeli government official, who confirmed the meeting on condition of anonymity, said the trip had been scheduled two weeks ago, before the controversy over Trump’s call to bar Muslims from entering the United States.
According to the official, the meeting with the 69-year-old billionaire real estate mogul and Republican presidential hopeful was in line with Netanyahu’s practice of meeting candidates visiting Israel.
US presidential candidates often go there while campaigning as part of efforts to shore up their foreign policy credentials.
Beyond that, Netanyahu has regularly expressed support for Republicans in the United States, and firm backing for Israel has become a decisive issue for the party.
However, the visit by Trump has already stirred strong opposition in Israel, with a range of lawmakers opposing it because of his comments regarding Muslims.
Thirty-seven parliament members, including two from Netanyahu’s governing coalition, have signed a letter calling on the right-wing prime minister to cancel the meeting and condemn Trump’s comments.
Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, was among those speaking out against Trump’s comments.
“Those who rejoice in Trump’s comments do not know enough about Jewish history to understand what happens when we begin down the road of hatred toward foreigners, contempt for the law and religious discrimination,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
The visit will also come at a tense time, amid a wave of Palestinian gun, knife and car-ramming attacks.
Israel’s population includes more than a million Muslims out of a total of roughly eight million people. The vast majority of Palestinians are also Muslim.
Trump’s comments have led to harsh criticism both at home and worldwide.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest argued that Trump’s comments disqualified him from becoming president, while also calling him a “carnival barker” with “fake hair”.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, a leading Gulf retailer has stopped selling products from the brand owned by Trump.
– ‘I don’t want your money’ –
Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, made the provocative remarks regarding Muslims after last week’s shooting that left 14 dead in California by a Muslim couple said to have been radicalised.
He urged a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
Beyond his comments regarding Muslims, Trump has also been criticised by some Jews over an appearance at the Jewish Republican Coalition in Washington earlier this month.
The tycoon was booed when he stopped short of calling Jerusalem the undivided capital of Israel, saying he first wanted to meet Netanyahu.
He also parroted stereotypes of Jews, likening himself to many in the room by presenting himself as a good negotiator and the ultimate deal maker.
He appeared to make a further crass stereotype about Jews by alluding to his personal wealth and public refusal to accept money from party donors.
“You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” he told the audience. “You want to control your own politicians, that’s fine.”
Netanyahu faced accusations of racism himself earlier this year.
In a polling-day bid to energise rightwing voters in March, the prime minister warned that Arab Israelis were going to the polls “in droves” — a comment for which he later apologised.