Former President Donald J. Trump, who often portrays himself as the staunchest defender of Israel to ever occupy the White House, on Wednesday criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a speech in Florida just days after deadly attacks by Hamas rocked the country.
Speaking to a crowd of supporters in West Palm Beach, a few miles from his Mar-a-Lago residence, Mr Trump told a story he said he had never told about Israel’s role in the assassination of Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Major General Qasim Suleimani, with an American drone strike in 2020.
Mr Trump said Israel had been working with the United States on a plan to attack, but had received a call shortly before that to inform him Israel would not participate. The United States continued anyway.
“But I’ll never forget,” Trump said. “I will never forget that Bibi Netanyahu failed us. It was a very horrible thing.”
He then criticized Israeli intelligence, pointing in part to its failure to anticipate and prevent Hamas, an Islamic militant group, from carrying out such a large and devastating attack. “They have to get it right,” Trump said.
At the same time, Mr Trump, who often portrays himself as a staunch ally of Israel, pledged to “fully support” the country in its war against Hamas.
The attacks were the main focus of Trump’s remarks in Florida, which is home to a significant number of Jewish voters. As recently, Mr. Trump attacked President Biden, blaming him for the attack and repeating falsehoods about American funds to Iran, a longtime supporter of Hamas. He also repeated his suggestion that it was a bloodbath it wouldn’t happen if he was president.
But in a new flourish, Mr Trump then linked the current conflict to his conspiracy theories and lies about the 2020 election.
“If the elections weren’t rigged,” he said, “no one would even think about going to Israel.”
Mr. Trump also appears to blame the Biden administration for the clashes on Israel’s northern border, which the former president blamed on Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militant organization in Lebanon that has committed the destruction of the Jewish state. He then repeatedly called Hezbollah “very smart.”
Mr. Trump’s appearance in West Palm Beach marked a bit of a homecoming. He has campaigned in Iowa and New Hampshire, and last week traveled to New York to attend the civil fraud trial he is facing there.
In Florida, he spoke at a convention center at a meeting hosted by Club 47 USA, which describes itself as the largest pro-Trump club in America and a “corporation formed to support” the former president’s agenda.
The friendly crowd, Mr. Trump said, explained his decision to tell the story of the strike against Mr. Soleimani. “No one has heard this story before,” he said. “But I’d like to say that to the 47 Club, because you’ve been so loyal.”
Mr. Netanyahu then praised Mr. Trump. But some in Israel were more subdued, wary that Iran might retaliate against Israel for a US attack.
Mr Trump has previously criticized Mr Netanyahu, Barak Ravid told Axios reporter that he was particularly angry after the Prime Minister congratulated Mr. Biden on winning the 2020 election.
Mr Trump also criticized Mr Netanyahu in an interview with Fox News Radio expected to air on Thursday. In a televised clip of that interview on Wednesday, Mr Trump said Mr Netanyahu “wasn’t ready and Israel wasn’t ready”.
He again suggested that Israeli intelligence was flawed, saying: “Thousands of people knew about it and they let it go. ”
Trump’s remarks in Florida drew almost immediate criticism from the state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, his closest rival in the primary.
“Terrorists have killed at least 1,200 Israelis and 22 Americans and are holding even more hostage, so it is absurd that anyone, much less someone running for president, would now decide to attack our friend and ally, Israel, much less praising Hezbollah terrorists as ‘very smart.’” Mr. DeSantis said on Xformerly known as Twitter.
Mr. Trump used his appearance on Wednesday to knock off Mr. DeSantis, who leads by double digits in most polls, in his own backyard.
“He didn’t have a lot of political skill, to put it mildly,” Trump said, adding that DeSantis “fell like a very badly injured bird from the sky.”
The West Palm Beach event kicked off with a panel of right-wing media personalities and influencers discuss their experiences with the former president.
Representative Matt Gaetz, one of Trump’s closest allies in Washington, was scheduled to speak but instead appeared only briefly at the beginning of Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump praised Mr. Gaetz but did not mention his role in the paralysis currently gripping Capitol Hill.
Mr. Gaetz successfully pushed for the removal of Representative Kevin McCarthy of California as speaker of the House last week. Since then, the body has been without a leader, which is why it is unable to fully perform its regular duties.