Former President Donald J. Trump drew scorn from both sides of the political spectrum on Thursday for remarks he made a day earlier criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and calling Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant group, “very smart.”
During a speech to supporters in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Wednesday, he weighed in on Hamas’ attacks on Israel, the worst seen by America’s closest Middle Eastern ally in half a century.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group, clashed with Israeli forces in the days after Hamas fighters from Gaza attacked border areas in Israel’s south, raising concerns that the country could be drawn into the conflict on another front.
“You know, Hezbollah is very smart,” Trump said. “They are all very smart.”
He killed Mr. Netanyahu oon “The Brian Kilmeade Show,” Fox News radio show, aired Thursday, which argued that intelligence failures by Israel made it vulnerable to an all-out attack, kidnappings and massacres of civilians that led to the war.
A wide range of political rivals condemned Trump on Thursday, including the White House and several of his Republican primary opponents.
“Statements like these are dangerous and disproportionate,” Andrew Bates, deputy White House press secretary, said in a statement. “We are completely at a loss as to why any American would ever praise an Iranian-backed terrorist organization as ‘smart’. Or do you have any objection to the United States warning terrorists not to attack Israel.”
As he filed papers to appear on the Republican primary ballot in New Hampshire on Thursday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is second behind Mr. Trump in national polls, also admonished his main rival.
“You won’t find me throwing verbal grenades at the Israeli leadership,” said Mr. DeSantis, whose campaign shared the video on Wednesday night Trump’s Hezbollah remarks on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Former Vice President Mike Pence similarly took issue with Trump’s rhetoric, saying his former boss sent the wrong message.
“Well, look, now is not the time for the former president or any other American leader to send any message other than that America stands with Israel,” Mr. Pence said during a radio interview with “New Hampshire Today.”
Mr. Pence disputed Trump’s characterization of Hezbollah and pointed out that Trump’s compliments to the brutal figure were not new: Mr. Trump called Russian President Vladimir V. Putin a “genius” and “very smart” after Russia invaded Ukraine last year. And as president, Mr Trump praised Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, as “very honourable”.
“Look, Hezbollah is not smart,” Mr. Pence said on Thursday. “They’re evil, OK.”
Gov. JB Pritzker of Illinois, a Democrat who serves on a national advisory board for President Biden’s re-election campaign, condemned Mr. Trump in a statement on Thursday.
“No true friend of Israel, the Jewish people or peace would praise Hezbollah just days after what President Biden and Jewish leaders called the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust,” Pritzker said.
In a statement Thursday, Steven Cheung, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, defended Trump’s comments. He accused the Biden administration of telegraphing its concerns about a potential Hezbollah offensive into northern Israel, citing a background briefing a senior defense official gave to the media on Monday.
But the Israeli army has been engaged in clashes with armed militants along the country’s volatile northern border for several days. On Sunday, the day before the briefing, The Associated Press reported that Hezbollah fired dozens of rockets and shells at three Israeli positions in the disputed area along Lebanon’s border with the Golan Heights.
“Hezbollah has operated there for decades,” Bates said. “And the United States’ words of deterrence have been welcomed around the world in Israel — unlike some other words that come to mind.”
Mr. Trump, who has often tried to cast himself as a champion of Israel, has vilified Netanyahu repeatedly in recent days.
He said in Florida on Wednesday that Israel had backed out of a 2020 U.S. drone strike that killed Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who the Pentagon said was plotting attacks on Americans across the region – despite his coordination on the plan.
“But I’ll never forget,” Trump said. “I will never forget that Bibi Netanyahu failed us. It was a very horrible thing.”
In “The Brian Kilmeade Show” in the interview, the former president criticized Mr. Netanyahu and Israeli intelligence as ill-prepared for the Hamas attacks on Saturday.
“Thousands of people knew about it and let it go,” he said. “It wasn’t good for him or anybody.”
Mr. DeSantis said that Mr. Trump crossed the line with his attack on Netanyahu.
“We all have to be on the same page,” he said. “Now is not the time to air personal grievances against the Israeli prime minister. Now is the time to support their right to defend themselves to the fullest.”
Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota and former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who are also challenging Mr. Trump for the Republican nomination, also condemned his remarks.
“Shame on you Donald” Mr. Hutchinson wrote at X. “Your constant compliments to dictators, terrorist groups, and villains are beneath the function you seek and do not reflect the American character.”
Speaking to reporters in New Hampshire, Mr. Burgum said “smart” was not how he would describe Hezbollah or Hamas.
“I would call them barbarians,” he said. “I would call them inhumane. I would call it unimaginable. But what Hezbollah and Hamas have done, but I don’t think I would characterize them in any positive way — not when you see this incredible ability to carry out atrocities that most of us would find unimaginable and unimaginable.”
In an interview with CNN on Thursday, Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, told host Wolf Blitzer: “Only a fool would make comments like that. Only a fool would make comments that could provide aid and comfort to Israel’s adversary in this situation.”
On the campaign trail in New Hampshire on Thursday, Nikki Haley criticized Mr. Trump in response to a voter’s question during a town hall. “I don’t want him to hit Netanyahu,” she said, adding: “Who cares what he thinks about Netanyahu? It is not about that. It is about the people of Israel.”
Jazmine Ulloa contributed reporting from Exeter, NH