Why did Donald Trump postpone Israel visit?

Donald Trump had scheduled a December trip to the Middle East. He's promised to reschedule.

Paul Vernon/AP/File
Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, Nov. 23, 2015. On Thursday, the Republican presidential hopeful announced that he is postponing his scheduled December trip to the Middle East.

Donald Trump isn’t going to Israel after all. On Thursday, the billionaire presidential hopeful announced that he is postponing his scheduled December trip to the Middle East.

His campaign is going well and now is not the time to leave the country, Mr. Trump said during a morning interview on Fox News. Plus, he does not want to put Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “under pressure,” Trump said.

Trump promised to reschedule. He’ll go “at a later date after I become President of the U.S.,” he said on Twitter.

Why this sudden reversal? Well, the general reason is obvious: It’s not a great idea for the most divisive figure in American politics today to visit a nation where relations between followers of different religions are even more fraught and consequential than they are in the United States.

The specific reasons are that Mr. Netanyahu didn’t seem to want him to come, and Trump would have been unlikely to get the political boost he wanted from the journey.

You can see this in the chilly manner in which Netanyahu responded to Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the US. On Wednesday, the Israeli prime minister said that he rejected Trump’s comments about Muslims and that Israel “respects all religions and diligently guards the rights of its citizens.”

About 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Arab Muslims.

It’s not unusual for American presidential candidates to travel to Israel. In general, it’s an easy way to demonstrate seriousness about foreign policy while trying to attract US votes.

But Trump’s trip was in trouble from the start. His speech last week at a Republican Jewish Coalition event in Washington was widely panned in Israel for its reliance on ethnic stereotypes regarding Jews, money, and negotiating. And in interviews, he has questioned whether Israel is truly committed to Middle East peace and has waffled on whether Jerusalem should be Israel’s undivided capital.

Trump’s presence in Israel would also have presented Netanyahu with particular challenges. Netanyahu’s relationship with the Obama administration is chilly, due to his closeness to many Republicans and his virtual endorsement of Mitt Romney in 2012.

Embracing the firebrand Trump would have made this worse, irritating both the White House and establishment GOP figures who feel the billionaire is hurting the party. It would have been bad in terms of domestic Israeli politics as well. Israeli lawmakers from both ends of the political spectrum were denouncing Trump’s proposed trip, and particularly his rumored visit to the hilltop revered by Jews as the Temple Mount.

The hilltop is the holiest place in Judaism as well as the third holiest site in Islam. A Trump appearance at such a flashpoint – where a misplaced word can spark violence – would have been a nightmare for Israeli authorities.

Netanyahu’s office maintains that the prime minister had no role in Trump’s decision to postpone. Unnamed Israeli officials insisted to the Haaretz newspaper that no messages of any sort were conveyed between Jerusalem and the Trump campaign.

But that is because official communication was not necessary. Trump could see the uneasiness of the Israeli government for himself.

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