JERUSALEM — A planned meeting this month between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump set off a chorus of criticism here on Wednesday, leading the Israeli leader to dissociate himself from Trump's call to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
Netanyahu's office said the meeting, planned for Dec. 28, was scheduled two weeks ago, well before Trump's comments on Muslims, and that the prime minister was prepared to meet any visiting American presidential candidate who requested a meeting.
But Trump's call Monday for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on" brought a strong reaction here, where sensitivities are high over exclusion of individuals on the basis of religion.
Trump's remarks drew criticism from some members of Netanyahu's governing coalition, and 37 Israeli parliament members signed a letter urging Netanyahu to cancel his meeting with the candidate.
In response, Netanyahu's office issued a statement distancing him from the anti-Muslim rhetoric without stepping back from the meeting.
"Prime Minister Netanyahu rejects Donald Trump's recent remarks about Muslims," the statement said. "The State of Israel respects all religions and strictly guarantees the rights of all its citizens. At the same time, Israel is fighting against militant Islam that targets Muslims, Christians and Jews alike and threatens the entire world."
Netanyahu's policy of meeting all visiting presidential candidates "does not represent an endorsement of any candidate or his or her views," the statement added. "Rather, it is an expression of the importance that Prime Minister Netanyahu attaches to the strong alliance between Israel and the United States."
News of the planned meeting drew harsh criticism from lawmakers representing Israel's Arab minority, which is mostly Muslim.
Ahmad Tibi, a member of the main Arab party, the Joint List, called Trump a "neo-Nazi" and said he should be banned from addressing parliament.
"As an Israeli citizen, I ask that the state treat the racism against me in the same way it would relate to racism against Jews," said Issawi Freij, an Arab member of the leftist Meretz party.
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who is close to Netanyahu, also criticized Trump's rhetoric. "I recommend fighting terrorists and extremist Islam, but I would not declare a boycott of Muslims in general," he told Israeli Army radio.