Trump’s ‘personal grievance’ with Netanyahu gives opening to Biden

Donald Trump is facing fierce rebukes from across the US political spectrum for criticising Benjamin Netanyahu in the wake of the Hamas attacks, a development that could weigh on his 2024 campaign for a new term in the White House.

The former US president spoke out on the Middle East conflict several times last week, including one in which he declared that Hizbollah, the Iran-backed militant organisation, was “very smart” and another where he blasted the Israeli prime minister for being unprepared for the attacks.

Trump’s comments triggered criticism from other Republicans and provided an unexpected opening for Joe Biden to pummel his predecessor for turning his back on Israel in one of its darkest moments.

“I thought it was not helpful,” Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, told NBC on Sunday, referring to Trump’s remarks. “I wouldn’t criticise Bibi,” he added, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

Although foreign policy rarely plays a dominant role in US presidential elections, it may become more prominent as Washington grapples with geopolitical turmoil from the war in Ukraine to tensions with China and now conflict in the Middle East.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with US secretary of state Antony Blinken at Israel’s military headquarters or Kirya on Thursday © Jacquelyn Martin/AP

“Our nation’s support for Israel is resolute and unwavering. And the right time to praise the terrorists who seek to destroy them is never,” Biden wrote on Thursday on his personal social media account on X, in response to Trump’s remarks. Biden’s 2024 campaign then reposted clips of Trump’s main rivals for the Republican White House nomination, including Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, and Nikki Haley, the former US ambassador to the UN, blasting the former president’s reactions to the war in Israel.

“We need to all be on the same page. Now’s not the time to air personal grievances about an Israeli prime minister,” DeSantis said during an event in New Hampshire. “You don’t congratulate or give any credit to murderers. Period,” Haley also said on the campaign trail.

As president, Trump won the favour of many conservative Jewish and Evangelical Christian voters with a Middle East policy in which he sided with Israel on nearly every sensitive issue.

He moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018 and recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, prompting the Palestinians to cut off contacts with the Trump administration.

Trump favoured Israel on borders, refugees and the fate of Israeli settlements in his administration’s failed peace plan. Netanyahu eventually pledged not to annex the West Bank in exchange for normalising relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

That was an outcome of what were known as the Abraham Accords, which were negotiated by the Trump administration. Biden has pressed ahead with the effort, this time to normalise relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Republicans have sharply rebuked Biden for his Iran policy — including efforts to revive the nuclear deal abandoned by Trump — and a recent prisoner exchange with Tehran that included the transfer of $6bn in Iranian assets to Qatar to be used for humanitarian aid.

But Biden has earned praise from many of his staunchest rightwing critics — including former Trump aides — for backing Netanyahu since the Hamas attacks.

“In Judaism there is an obligation of ‘Hakarat Hatov’ — saying thank you to those who perform good deeds,” David Friedman, US ambassador to Israel under Trump, wrote on X. “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.”

Alyssa Farah Griffin, a former Pentagon spokesperson and White House communications director under Trump, said on X: “It’s a stark contrast to Trump attacking Netanyahu when his nation is at war.” George W Bush, the former president, said of Biden in a video clip obtained by Axios: “The administration started off on the right foot”.

Trump’s criticism of Netanyahu has been surprising because there is still widespread support for Israel among Americans, though it was declining among Democrats before Hamas’s assault. Trump and Netanyahu fell out at the end of his administration after Netanyahu congratulated Biden for winning the election in 2020 while Trump was still contesting it. In recent days, Trump also openly begrudged Netanyahu for not being sufficiently supportive of the US operation to kill Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian military officer in early 2020. “I’ll never forget that Bibi Netanyahu let us down,” Trump said.

A poll released on Friday found that nearly two out of three Americans say the US government should publicly support Israel and that a majority of Americans in both parties — 77 per cent of Republicans, 69 per cent of Democrats and 54 per cent of Independents — favour US public support of Israel. But in a worrying sign for Biden, an ABC/Ipsos poll released on Sunday showed only 41 per cent of Americans approve of his handling of the war between Israel and Hamas.

So far, Biden has avoided any significant backlash from the left of the Democratic party to the pro-Israeli position he has staked out in recent days. But if civilian casualties mount sharply in Gaza as Israel launches its expected ground offensive, Biden may be vulnerable to criticism from some Democrats that he has been too quick to defend Netanyahu.

Although the US president has called on Israel to respect international law in its response to the attacks, some progressive Democrats have already urged Biden to be more vigilant in terms of the protection of civilians in Gaza.

But for now, it is Trump on the back foot in the US political fallout from the war in the Middle East — he was forced to issue a statement late on Thursday to defend his record on Israel. He said: “With President Trump back in office, Israel, and everyone else, will be SAFE AGAIN!”

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