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.
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.”
Trump was a vocal Netanyahu ally during his presidency. He ultimately ended the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and effectively took Israel’s side in negotiations with Palestinians, moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and endorsing the annexation of West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements into Israel.
This story has been updated with additional information.