ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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Trump says he stands with Netanyahu after criticism for saying he ‘let us down’

GOP presidential frontrunner makes statement after he was attacked by GOP rivals for comments which included referring to Hezbollah terror group as ‘very smart’

Then-US president Donald Trump, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk to a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, January 27, 2020. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
Then-US president Donald Trump, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk to a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, January 27, 2020. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Former US president Donald Trump said Friday that he stood with Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as his GOP rivals continued to pointedly denounce his lashing out at Netanyahu days after Hamas’s deadly attacks.

Referring to Netanyahu by his nickname, Trump posted “#IStandWithIsrael” and “#IStandWithBibi” on his Truth Social network Friday afternoon.

That stood in stark contrast to comments earlier this week, when Trump told a rally crowd in Florida that Netanyahu had “let us down” before the US killed a top Iranian general. Trump further faulted the country’s intelligence agencies, saying they 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.”

The comments drew widespread condemnation from the White House as well as Trump’s GOP rivals, who have generally avoided directly attacking the former president and GOP frontrunner because he remains deeply popular with the party’s base.

By Thursday afternoon, Trump’s team appeared to be on damage control, sending out statements highlighting his past support for Israel. “There was no better friend or ally of Israel than President Donald J. Trump,” Trump wrote in one. He also praised the Israeli soldiers now fighting Hamas in response to the unprecedented surprise attack on October 7. The war has since claimed at least 3,200 lives on both sides.

While Trump and Netanyahu worked together closely while Trump was president, Trump responded with fury 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 the embattled prime minister — “F— him,” he reportedly said — and faulted Netanyahu for disloyalty.

Republican presidential candidate and former US president Donald Trump speaks Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023, at Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

“I liked Bibi. I still like Bibi. But I also like loyalty. The first person to congratulate Biden was Bibi. And not only did he congratulate him, he did it on tape,” he reportedly said.

Trump spokesman Steven Cheung denied there had been any walk-back and instead stressed Trump’s record on Israel as president, including moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and the Abraham Accords.

“There was no bigger advocate and defender of Israel than President Trump,” he said.

Trump’s GOP rivals nonetheless continued to attack him over his comments.

Former US vice president Mike Pence, campaigning in New Hampshire, said he “found the former president’s comments to be reckless and irresponsible.”

“Leaders in this country should be sending no message other than America stands with Israel. To speak in a critical way about Prime Minister Netanyahu, to refer to the terrorist organization Hezbollah as very smart, I think was incomprehensible to me,” he said.

Republican presidential candidates, from left, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, and former vice president Mike Pence, stand at their podiums during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX Business Network and Univision, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, September 27, 2023. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Nikki Haley, who served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, said the country needs a president who “knows the difference between good and evil.”

“I think to go and give credit to Hezbollah, to congratulate the Chinese Communist Party like he did and to go and criticize the head of a country that just saw massive bloodshed, no, that’s not what we need in a president,” she said. “What we need in a president is someone who knows the difference between good and evil, who knows the difference between right and wrong.”

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a longtime Trump critic, told reporters that the former president was “a fool” and that the episode “should show everybody how self-consumed he is.”

“He’s still angry with Prime Minister Netanyahu for calling Joe Biden and congratulating him on winning the election in 2020. That’s what’s causing him to say these things. Can we really afford to have a president who really demonstrably, during a crisis like this, only cares about himself?”

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