NEW YORK (AP) — Several of former President Donald Trump ‘s Republican rivals denounced him on Thursday for lashing out at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu days after Hamas’ deadly attack, a rare moment in which multiple competitors directly criticized the GOP front-runner.
Trump at a rally Wednesday night said Netanyahu “let us down” just before the U.S. killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in 2020. He also said Israeli leaders needed to “step up their game” and referred to Hezbollah, the group Israel fears may launch a large-scale attack from the country’s north, as “very smart.” In an interview that aired Thursday, he added to his criticism, saying Netanyahu “was not prepared” for the deadly weekend incursion from Gaza.
“Now is not the time to be attacking our ally,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, one of Trump’s 2024 rivals, echoing denunciations from the White House and elsewhere. More than 2,700 people are dead on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, and Hamas is believed to have taken around 150 hostages.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, another GOP presidential contender, compared Trump’s comments to a foreign ally criticizing the U.S. in the aftermath of 9/11 or the attack on Pearl Harbor. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott said, “We cannot accept a single message to any of the enemies of Israel” that U.S. and Israeli leaders are at odds.
Trump is generally treated with a hands-off approach by his leading Republican opponents, who are fearful of alienating his loyal base. But his criticism of Israel, so soon after the unprecedented attack, underscores the extent to which the man most likely to take on President Joe Biden next year is driven by personal enmity and resentments toward those who rejected his lies about winning the 2020 election.
While Trump and Netanyahu were close allies for years, the former president turned on the embattled Israel leader after Netanyahu congratulated then-President-elect Biden for winning the 2020 election while Trump was still trying to overturn the results. In interviews for a book about his Middle East peace efforts, Trump, according to its author, used an expletive to describe Netanyahu and said he believed the Israeli leader never really wanted to make peace.
Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary who serves on the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he wished Trump would “let his personal grievances with Bibi, whatever they are, slide for now.”
“I think it’s just a reflection that for Donald Trump, everything is personal,” Fleischer said. “But despite it, I’ll never forget and no one should forget Trump has been good for Israel.” Trump has long said that he did more to support Israel than any previous president, pointing to his decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.
Others were less forgiving.
“I think it is another sign that Trump’s impulsiveness plays into the hands of those who are not his friends,” said Erick Erickson, a conservative radio host and Trump critic. “He’s given a propaganda win to a terrorist group. That’s unfortunate.”
White House spokesman Andrew Bates called Trump’s statements “dangerous and unhinged,” while the Israeli communications minister, Shlomo Karhi, told Israel’s Channel 13 that it was “shameful that a man like that, a former U.S. president, abets propaganda and disseminates things that wound the spirit of Israel’s fighters and its citizens.”
Netanyahu’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The prime minister and Israel’s intelligence services are under immense pressure to explain how they missed the planning of a multi-pronged attack unlike any in the country’s history. Before this week, his far-right government was facing mass protests over a proposed judicial overhaul and criticism from former senior officers of Mossad, Shin Bet, and other Israeli security services who said his proposed policies weakened Israel’s internal security.
In Washington, President Joe Biden and senior Democratic and Republican leaders have lined up behind Israel in the wake of the Hamas attack. Biden spoke to Jewish leaders on Wednesday and called the attack the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.
Trump has long tried to paint himself as one of Israel’s staunchest defenders and has continued to pledge support in the wake of the attack. In the immediate aftermath, he, like some other GOP contenders, tried to place the blame on Biden, and said he would support the country’s efforts to “crush” Hamas.
But on Wednesday night, after saying his prayers were with Israel and again vowing support, Trump told a rally in West Palm Beach, Florida, that he was frustrated with Netanyahu over the 2020 mission that killed Soleimani, then the head of Iran’s Quds Force.
In Trump’s telling, “Israel was going to do this with us, and it was being planned and working on it for months.”
“We had everything all set to go, and the night before it happened, I got a call that Israel will not be participating in this attack,” Trump alleged, adding that he would “never forget that Bibi Netanyahu let us down.”
His account of Israel’s role in the raid could not immediately be verified.
Trump also seized on intelligence failures surrounding the past weekend’s onslaught, saying the Iraelis had to “strengthen themselves up.”
“They’ve got to straighten it out because they’re fighting, potentially, a very big force,” he said. “They’re going to have to step up their game.” He further criticized Israel’s defense minister, calling him “this jerk” for warning Hezbollah not to attack Israel from the north.
In an interview that aired Thursday morning on Fox News Radio, he told host Brian Kilmeade that Netanyahu “was not prepared and Israel was not prepared.”
“Who would have thought their intelligence wouldn’t have been able to pick this up?” he asked. “Thousands of people were involved. Thousands of people knew about it and they let this slip by.”
Speaking to reporters after filing for the New Hampshire primary on Thursday afternoon, DeSantis said Netanyahu was “managing one of the most difficult situations Israel’s ever had to face.”
“You may have a personal vendetta or beef with him, but is that really the time to be out there doing that and to be attacking the Israeli defense minister? I don’t think so,” he said. He also criticized Trump for calling Hezbollah “very smart.”
Trump campaign aides defended the former president’s comments, saying that there was nothing new about his criticism of Netanyahu over the 2020 strike and defending his use of the word “smart” to describe bad foreign actors.
“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,” said Trump spokesman Steven Cheung. “Smart does not equal good. It just proves Biden is stupid.”
It remains unclear how the new war in the Middle East might impact both the GOP primary, which will begin in three months in Iowa, or the general election.
While the war in Israel was not top of mind for many of the Republican primary voters who gathered at the New Hampshire statehouse on Thursday to see DeSantis, several were aware of Trump’s comments. One of them, 34-year-old Republican Melissa Blasek, of Merrimack, said it was another example of why she had lost faith in the former president.
“One of the things I always liked about Trump was his strong support for Israel,” said Blasek. “I don’t really know what he meant. It was very rambling. What’s clear is that this is not the Trump of 2016. He is not the same candidate … And so things sound less coherent. And I am tired of incoherency. I like an articulate and coherent president.”
Gomez Licon reported from Miami. Associated Press writers Amy Teibel in Jerusalem, Holly Ramer, Steve Peoples in Concord, New Hampshire, and Thomas Beaumont in Newton, Iowa, contributed to this report.