JERUSALEM (AP) — GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump canceled plans Thursday to visit to Israel, a trip for which even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — widely seen as an ally of the Republican Party — had shown little enthusiasm.
Trump announced his decision on Twitter, saying he would reschedule "at a later date after I become President of the U.S." Appearing on Fox News, he said there were many reasons for the move, among them that he didn't want to put Netanyahu in a bind.
"In fact, I did a campaign ad for him, and he's a good man, but I didn't want to put him under pressure," Trump said. "I also did it because I'm in the midst of a powerful campaign that's going very well."
Trump, who has maintained a wide lead in most early preference polling, unleashed an uproar this week when he called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S. The billionaire businessman has cast the idea as a prudent step in the wake of the mass shooting by an Islamic militant couple of 14 people in San Bernardino, California, while critics call it both racist and unconstitutional.
Trump also drew criticism from some American Jews for his comments last week to a gathering of Jewish donors. He was booed after refusing to endorse Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel — a key Israeli position. Some of his other comments were seen by some as promoting Jewish stereotypes.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a briefing that "most people are relieved that he's reconsidered" the visit to Israel.
"The situation in Israel is particularly volatile, and so I think in this case, his decision to reconsider that trip is a good outcome for all of those involved," Earnest added.
From the day he launched his candidacy, Trump's campaign has been driven by one controversy after the next. There was his assertion that that Mexican government was sending its rapists and criminals across the border; his statement that Sen. John McCain wasn't a war hero because he was captured; his feud with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly; a series of factually inaccurate remarks; and the time he called Iowa voters stupid.
Each time, Trump's comments have drawn fury from his opponents and prompted pundits to predict his pending demise. But each time, Trump has emerged unscathed.
It remains unclear whether his proposal on Muslim immigration will have any long-lasting impact on his campaign. But overseas, the Israel trip is just one of many casualties.
A visit to Israel is considered a rite of passage for U.S. presidential candidates as they seek to burnish their foreign policy credentials and appeal to Jewish American voters, and Netanyahu has hosted scores of candidates and elected American officials over the years.
During the current campaign, Trump's Republican rivals have questioned his foreign policy bona fides, suggesting he lacks the depth and diplomatic skill to tackle crises in the Mideast and elsewhere. Trump has argued his vast experience brokering business deals qualifies him to negotiate with foreign leaders, and he has cited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a prime example.
In an interview with The Associated Press last week, Trump said of potentially brokering a peace deal in the Middle East, "If you can make that deal, you can make any deal. It's probably the toughest deal to make."
In normal circumstances, Netanyahu, who thrives in the public limelight and tends to agree with Republican positions on economic and security issues, would have welcomed Trump. Like the other Republican candidates, Trump — whose daughter, Ivanka, converted to Judaism — has long worked to portray himself as a strong supporter of Israel.
But Trump's comments about Muslims had put the Israeli leader in a bind.
Throughout a three-decade political career, Netanyahu has been a leading voice warning of the dangers of Islamic extremism. Yet he has tried to be careful about differentiating between Islamic extremists and the Muslim religion. Nearly 20 percent of Israel's population is Muslim.
Early this year, Netanyahu was harshly criticized when he warned that Arabs were voting "in droves" as he made an urgent election-day plea to supporters to go to the polls.
Those comments remain fresh in the minds of Israeli Arabs, and cozying up to Trump would have risked drawing renewed accusations of racism, particularly if the outspoken real estate mogul and reality TV star managed to offend Muslims.
Opposition lawmaker Michal Rozin of the dovish Meretz party on Wednesday initiated a petition urging Netanyahu to condemn Trump's "racist" comments and to cancel the meeting unless the American retracts them. Some 37 lawmakers, nearly a third of the parliament, signed the petition.
In a statement Wednesday, Netanyahu rejected Trump's comments about Muslims, saying Israel "respects all religions." Although he had said he would go ahead with the Dec. 28 meeting, he stressed it did not amount to an endorsement of Trump.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media, said there had been no Israeli pressure on Trump to cancel. Likewise, Marc Zell, co-chairman of Republicans Overseas Israel, said there was "none whatsoever" from his organization, which represents Republican supporters among the country's large American expatriate community.
"He's welcome to visit Israel, but I think it's better that he didn't come because his visit here would have been marred by a loud dissenting voice coming from all sectors of the population, including me," Zell said.
"I don't believe he's capable of being the president of the United States because I think he lacks good judgment," he added, stressing that he was voicing a personal opinion.
Palestinian officials said there were no plans for Trump to meet with them, and they welcomed news of his cancellation.
"The world public opinion in America and in Europe and the Arab and Islamic world, and even in Israel, had announced Trump persona non grata," said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official in the West Bank. She said his "culture of hatred" threatened the entire world.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in Newark, New Jersey, contributed to this report.