Former President Trump risks potential backlash in the Republican presidential primary over his criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the wake of the Hamas terror attacks in Israel.
In a speech Wednesday, Trump accused Netanyahu of “letting us down” in 2020 just before the U.S. killed a top Iranian general. Trump also suggested that the Biden administration and Israeli leaders’ public discussions helped Hezbollah, which the U.S. designates as a terror organization, plan further attacks on Israel. Then on Thursday, Trump said in an interview that Israel “wouldn’t have had to be prepared” if he were in the White House. Additionally, the former president referred to Israel’s defense minister as a “jerk.”
The comments have already opened Trump up to criticism from rival GOP presidential candidates including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his former Vice President Mike Pence. Additionally, the comments could threaten to attract more criticism from other members of the GOP, which is dominantly pro-Israel.
“I think it’s a strategic mistake,” said Alex Stroman, a Republican strategist. “If I was a Republican candidate, I would probably be running ads [using Trump’s comments against him].”
DeSantis took to X, the platform formally known as Twitter, on Wednesday to criticize Trump and tout his own position on Israel.
“Terrorists have murdered at least 1,200 Israelis and 22 Americans and are holding more hostage, so it is absurd that anyone, much less someone running for President, would choose now to attack our friend and ally, Israel, much less praise Hezbollah terrorists as ‘very smart,’” the governor wrote on the platform.
DeSantis further responded to Trump’s remarks Thursday during an interview with Fox News.
“This is a time to be standing with Israel,” DeSantis said. “And to be attacking the prime minister and the defense minister just makes no sense.”
On Thursday evening, DeSantis’s communications director hit the Trump campaign over their response to the criticism of the former president’s comments.
“No matter what rhetorical gymnastics act his campaign team tries to perform to attempt to once again cover for him, nobody can change the fact that last night Donald Trump showed his true colors by insulting Israelis during one of their darkest hours and simultaneously complimenting one of the terrorist groups that continue to pose a grave threat to Israelis and Americans alike. It is disturbing and disqualifying,” said Andrew Romeo, communications director for the DeSantis campaign.
On Thursday, Pence said in an interview on “New Hampshire Today” that it’s “no time for the former president or any other American leader to be sending any message other than America stands with Israel.”
“Hezbollah aren’t smart, they’re evil. But the former president also said when Russia invaded Ukraine in a similar unprovoked, unconscionable invasion a year and a half ago, he said Vladimir Putin was a genius,” Pence said. “And I will tell you, look, all the blame here lies at the feet of the Hamas and the Russian military in these unprovoked invasions, and they need to be held to account.”
Trump’s campaign has come out in his defense, noting that he was not praising Hezbollah.
“President Trump was clearly pointing out how incompetent Biden and his administration were by telegraphing to the terrorists an area that is susceptible to an attack. Smart does not equal good. It just proves Biden is stupid,” Trump’s campaign said.
The Trump campaign also pointed out that X’s Community Notes put a disclaimer on the DeSantis campaign’s post, saying it “intentionally misuses the word praise to suggest Trump is complementing Hezbollah.”
Trump’s defenders argue that the remarks won’t have any significant impact in the long term.
“This was not the best choice of words,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “He’s not wrong, Hezbollah is not stupid and they’re well organized, and they’re also south of our U.S. border.”
O’Connell went on to cite a Marquette University poll that was released earlier this month, showing that voters said they believed Trump was “better” on foreign relations than Biden, 43 percent to 38 percent.
“Donald Trump is seen as the gold standard among Republican voters when it comes to foreign policy,” O’Connell said. “You didn’t have any wars, and you had stability on the world stage, particularly you had stability in the Middle East.”
And Trump did offer words of solidarity with Israel during his speech Wednesday.
“Under my leadership, the United States will fully support Israel, defeating, dismantling, and permanently destroying the terrorist group, Hamas,” the former president said.
The Trump administration played a key role in mediating the Abraham Accords, which was a 2020 agreement to normalize diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Since Hamas’s attacks on Israel and the subsequent war, however, any hope of peace between Israel and other Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia, has cratered.
“What the Republicans are able to say is that Joe Biden’s appeasement, whether it’s Iran, Russia and everything else, has squandered the stability that Donald Trump has brought to the world stage in the Middle East in the four years he was in office,” O’Connell said.
Other Republicans say Trump may have had a different strategy in mind when he issued criticism of Netanyahu days after the terror attacks.
“What this is an attempt to do is to get voters who might not like Netanyahu, but are also likely to more agree with his positions, especially on migrants and the economy,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Republican strategist. “He shows himself to be more of a moderate, less of a lunatic, and the end result is he picks off votes in a very close election that can make the difference.”
But Biden and his administration have received widespread praise for their response to the attacks, including from Netanyahu and some conservatives in and out of Israel.
“While I have been, and remain, deeply critical of the Biden Administration, the moral, tactical, diplomatic and military support that it has provided Israel over the past few days has been exceptional,” David Friedman, former U.S. ambassador to Israel under Trump, wrote on X.
Biden has delivered a number of blistering condemnations of the attacks and repeatedly reaffirmed U.S. support for Israel. Additionally, Secretary of State Antony Blinken received a warm welcome by Israeli officials and citizens alike in the country Thursday.
“Trump’s argument is that Biden is weak,” Sheinkopf said. “Biden’s response to the atrocities committed by Hamas this week in Israel was one of strength.”
“That helps him not just with Jewish voters but with voters in the middle,” he continued. “So this battle is something that Trump understands and Biden understands. It will be a very close race and every vote will matter, especially in states where electoral votes are tight. So the rhetoric of each of these men is going to try to deal with that.”
This story was updated at 8:06 p.m.