Former President Donald Trump lashed out Wednesday at Benjamin Netanyahu, saying the Israeli prime minister was caught unprepared by Hamas’ attack and praising the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah as “very smart.”
The remarks reflect the soured relationship between the two men and are notable at a time when Trump’s Republican presidential rivals have uniformly sought to position themselves as steadfast supporters of Netanyahu during Israel’s war with Hamas.
“(Netanyahu) has been hurt very badly because of what’s happened here. He was not prepared. He was not prepared, and Israel was not prepared,” Trump told Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade in an interview clip that aired Wednesday night.
Trump went further at a campaign event in West Palm Beach, Florida.
“When I see sometimes the intelligence, you talk about the intelligence, or you talk about some of the things that went wrong over the last week, they’ve got to straighten it out because they’re fighting potentially a very big force,” Trump said Wednesday.
Regarding Hezbollah, which the US and its allies have warned against escalating the current conflict, Trump said, “They’re vicious, and they’re smart. And, boy, are they vicious, because nobody’s ever seen the kind of sight that we’ve seen.”
The criticism is a stark reversal from the firm friendship Trump shared with Netanyahu while in office, embracing the Israeli leader at every turn. But it’s driven by animosity Trump has held for Netanyahu ever since the prime minister publicly acknowledged that Joe Biden won the 2020 election. In the months that followed, Trump accused Netanyahu of disloyalty and fumed to Axios, “F*** him.”
Though Trump later congratulated Netanyahu after he returned to power late last year, his hostility toward him has hardly waned, sources familiar with his thinking told CNN, and Trump maintains that Netanyahu shouldn’t have commented on Biden’s win. At the campaign event Wednesday night, Trump again resurfaced his false claims of election fraud and suggested that Hamas’ attack wouldn’t have happened if he were president.
“If the election wasn’t rigged, there would be nobody even thinking about going into Israel,” the former president told his supporters.
He also invoked the US government’s 2020 killing of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and claimed Israel declined to participate in the strike.
“I’ll never forget that Bibi Netanyahu let us down. That was a very terrible thing, I will say that,” Trump said.
At the time, however, Netanyahu praised the strike, saying it was justified because Soleimani “was planning further attacks.”
When CNN pressed Netanyahu in his last interview with the network in September about whether the newfound hostility from Trump bothered him, the Israeli leader said, “I’ve been long enough in the political life to put aside the periodic ebb and flow of emotion and to look at the substantive positions that leaders and allies have done. … So, yeah, I don’t particularly care for that. I mean, I don’t care about it, is the way I would say it.”
In the interview with Fox’s Kilmeade, Trump would not say if he has spoken with Netanyahu in the days since the Hamas attack.
“I don’t want to say about, you know, who I’ve talked to. But I was very disappointed that a thing like this could happen,” the former president said.
Trump and his team were playing defense Thursday night, blasting out a series of statements praising the Trump administration’s work in the Middle East and relationship with Israel, after comments at a rally Wednesday sparked enormous backlash from both allies and adversaries.
“There was no better friend or ally of Israel than President Donald J. Trump,” Trump said a statement Thursday, adding: “Under my leadership, the United States stood in complete solidarity with Israel, and as a result, Israel was safe, America was safe, and for the first time in decades, we made historic strides for Peace in the Middle East.”
During what was intended to be a campaign speech highlighting Trump’s accomplishments in the Middle East and pledging his unequivocal support for Israel, Trump had veered off course Wednesday night.
Most of Trump’s closest advisers were not with him Wednesday night, but many watched live as he muddied the messaging on his achievements while in office with attacks that the Israeli prime minister was caught unprepared by Hamas’ attack.
Multiple sources acknowledged that it was immediately clear that his negative remarks would overshadow the point of the speech and receive backlash.
“Those comments received a lot more attention than other parts of his speech,” one Trump adviser said.
The adviser added that the purpose of the statement and talking points highlighting Trump’s past achievements on Israel that his campaign blasted out Thursday night was to serve “as a reminder” of where Trump stands. “I think a lot of that a lot of the accomplishments, they were overshadowed by some other things,” the adviser said.
Trump’s team also sent talking points to allies Thursday after the speech, pointing to his record in office and clarifying his remarks the night before.
“This was to highlight President Trump’s accomplishments during his first term and to reiterate everything that he’s done to bring peace to the Middle East and to foster a deeper relationship between Israel and the United States,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung told CNN in response to the statements the team sent out on Thursday.
One person close to Trump criticized the former president for bringing up the Soleimani strike.
“That was unnecessary, especially at this time. And it does nothing to show he’s with the people of Israel and Bibi,” the person said.
Multiple Trump advisers and allies said the former president had been telling this story in recent days as well as implying that Netanyahu was “weak” for missing the terrorists’ attack before it happened.
While in office, Trump and Netanyahu maintained a firm friendship and he was a vocal Netanyahu ally during his presidency. Sources, however, said that has changed since Trump left office.
“Trump’s relationship with Netanyahu has deteriorated since Trump lost. Couple that with a need to be a strongman in the face of what Trump probably sees as Biden admin weakness on terrorism, and you get comments like that,” a former Trump administration official told CNN.
While most of the 2024 GOP field has otherwise been reluctant to criticize Trump head on, a few contenders seized on his Wednesday remarks.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has recently escalated his attacks against Trump, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter: “(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.’”
Former Vice President Mike Pence also pushed back on his former boss’s remarks, saying, “Hezbollah aren’t smart, they’re evil.”
“This is no time for the former president, or any other American leader to be sending any message other than America stands with Israel,” Pence told a local New Hampshire radio show Thursday.
While Trump’s comments toward Netanyahu are personal, Israeli officials have acknowledged they were caught by surprise when Hamas attacked. US officials have also said they did not see intelligence that this type of attack was going to unfold any more than the Israelis did.
“We were surprised this morning,” Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, the international spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces, told CNN on Saturday. “About failures, I prefer not to talk at this point right now. We’re in war. We’re fighting. I’m sure this will be a big question once this event is over.”
This story has been updated with additional information.