By Ori Lewis and Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli politicians of all persuasions called on Wednesday for a planned visit by U.S. 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.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement later saying he rejected the remarks but added that the visit, set two weeks ago, would go ahead as planned and did not indicate support for Trump.
A government official said Netanyahu and Trump would meet on Dec. 28.
“The prime minister rejects the recent comments by Donald Trump with regard to Muslims. Israel respects all religions and diligently guards the rights of all its citizens,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.
It added that the Israeli leader had determined a uniform policy towards meeting all U.S. presidential candidates from both parties who visit Israel.
“This policy does not reflect support for the candidates or for their platforms, rather, it expresses the importance that the prime minister ascribes to the strong alliance between Israel and the United States,” the statement added.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 mass shooting in California by two Muslims who police said had been radicalised.
Trump said on Twitter that he was “very much looking forward” to visiting Israel by year’s end.
In the statement, Netanyahu repeated the need to fight militant Islam, saying that while guarding the rights of all its citizens “Israel is combating militant Islam, which attacks Muslims, Christians and Jews and threatens the entire world.”
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.
STRONG CRITICISM FROM NETANYAHU’S PARTY
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 word whether Trump would also meet with 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”.
(Additional reporting by William James and Kate Holton in London, Emily Stephenson and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Richard Balmforth)
Photo: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at his office in Jerusalem December 7, 2015. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun