Furore in Israel as Donald Trump to be hosted by PM Netanyahu after remarks on Muslims

Israeli left-wing activists hold banners and wave their national flag during a rally in Tel Aviv on October.
Israeli left-wing activists hold banners and wave their national flag during a rally in Tel Aviv on October.PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM (REUTERS) - Israeli politicians of all persuasions called on Wednesday for a planned visit by US Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump to be blocked over his call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, which has raised an international outcry.

A government official, however, confirmed that a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump would take place on Dec 28 after being set two weeks ago. Sources close to the right-wing Netanyahu said "he does not agree with everything said by every (US election) candidate".

At least 37 mainly Israeli opposition legislators who make up almost a third of the 120-seat Knesset signed a letter to Netanyahu calling on him to cancel the meeting unless Trump withdraws his comments.

Michal Rosin of the left-wing Meretz party, who initiated the letter, said that none of Netanyahu's Likud party had agreed to sign although some had disagreed strongly with Trump's words.

Foreign notables generally get the red-carpet treatment in Israel. For those running for high office, this can mean more votes at home. With Israel and the United States being close allies, and Netanyahu widely seen as supportive of the Republicans against Democratic US President Barack Obama, Trump may hope his visit will bolster his foreign policy credentials ahead of the U.S. election in November 2016.

Playing to US fears about radical Islam after the California gun rampage, Trump has shrugged off outrage at home and abroad over his remarks, made after last week's California shooting spree by two Muslims who police said were radicalised.

Trump said on Twitter that he was "very much looking forward" to visiting Israel by year's end.

Netanyahu has spoken often of the need to fight militant Islam, including last month during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a speech in June, he said the battle could be protracted. "I think militant Islam will succumb to the forces of modernity but it could take many decades. And we have to make sure that in the interim millions of innocent people don't die,"said Netanyahu, who often cites Palestinian Islamists like Hamas, which has waged three wars with Israel, as enemies.

Left- and right-wing Israeli politicians alike, as well as Israeli Arab lawmakers, condemned Trump's remarks and said he should be barred from visiting. Ahmad Tibi, a member of parliament from Israel's 20 percent Arab minority, said he had asked for the "neo-Nazi" not to be admitted to the Knesset.

That call was echoed by Omer Bar-Lev of the main centre-left opposition party, the Zionist Union. "It is inappropriate for any Israeli official to meet (Trump) when he comes to visit,"Bar-Lev said.

The censure was joined by Likud officials. Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, a senior Likud lawmaker and Netanyahu confidant, described Trump's rhetoric on Muslims as harmful from an Israeli and U.S. standpoint.

"I recommend fighting terrorist and extremist Islam, but I would not declare a boycott of, ostracism against or war on Muslims in general," Steinitz told Israel's Army Radio. "We in the state of Israel have many Muslim citizens who are loyal. On the contrary, the extremists and the terrorists should be distinguished from the loyal citizens, and in the United States, too, there are loyal Muslim citizens."

Marc Zell, vice-president of Republicans Overseas and a party representative in Israel, also had harsh words for Trump. "He is a demagogue. And we as Jews, and also as Israelis, know what a demagogue is, historically," Zell told Army Radio in a separate interview, saying he was voicing his own opinion rather than a formal Republican position.

"The Republican party has a long list of candidates worthy of the presidency, and we have to change the leadership in the White House, which has caused a lot of damage, but Donald Trump is not the answer," Zell said.

There was no immediate comment on Trump's planned visit from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who was visiting Washington and scheduled to meet Obama on Wednesday.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Trump's comments disqualified him from being president and said other Republican candidates should disavow him "right now".

The prime ministers of France and Britain, Canada's foreign minister, the United Nations and Muslims in Asian countries have also denounced Trump's comments.

Over 150,000 Britons have signed an online petition to ban Trump from Britain, but finance minister George Osborne opposed this, saying it would better to engage Trump in democratic debate "about why he is profoundly wrong about the contribution of American Muslims and indeed British Muslims".