© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Donald Trump, former U.S. president and Republican presidential candidate, looks on at the Club 47 USA event in West Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., October 11, 2023. REUTERS/Marco Bello/File Photo
By Tim Reid and Nathan Layne
(Reuters) – Israel and the White House on Thursday condemned remarks by Donald Trump in which he praised the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah and criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over an attack by Palestinian Hamas militants that killed more than 1,300 people in Israel.
Trump, a former Republican president who is the frontrunner to become the party’s 2024 presidential nominee, called the Lebanese Hezbollah, a sworn enemy of Israel, “very smart” and accused Netanyahu of being “not prepared” for the Hamas attack, which also killed 22 Americans.
Israeli Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi said Trump’s comments to supporters and in a television interview on Wednesday night showed he could not be relied on.
It is “shameful that a man like that, a former U.S. president, abets propaganda and disseminates things that wound the spirit of Israel’s fighters and its citizens,” Karhi told Israel’s Channel 13.
White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates called Trump’s comments “dangerous and unhinged.”
“It’s completely lost on us why any American would ever praise an Iran-backed terrorist organization as ‘smart’,” Bates said.
Democratic President Joe Biden has condemned the Hamas attack as “an act of sheer evil” and declared his unwavering support for Israel.
“This is a time for all of us to stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel against ‘unadulterated evil,'” Bates said on Thursday. “That’s what the President is doing.”
On Thursday evening, Trump released a statement, saying there had been “no better friend or ally of Israel” than when he was U.S. president.
Several of Trump’s opponents in the Republican contest also criticized the former president.
“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’,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis wrote on X social media.
Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, another 2024 rival, said in New Hampshire: “This is no time for any former president or any other American leader to be sending any message other than America stands with Israel.”
Asa Hutchinson, a former Arkansas governor and a Republican 2024 candidate, said on X that Trump was “out of his mind if he thinks that any candidate for President of the United States should praise the terrorists attacking one of our most important allies.”
TRUMP-NETANYAHU RELATIONSHIP SOURS
Trump and Netanyahu had a close relationship during Trump’s time as president, though cracks have appeared in their once ironclad rapport. Trump was annoyed when Netanyahu called to congratulate Biden on winning the 2020 presidential election against Trump, an election Trump still calls fraudulent.
Speaking to supporters in Florida on Wednesday, Trump said he was disclosing for the first time that Israel decided at the last minute not to take part in the U.S. assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, killed in Iraq in a drone strike on Jan. 3, 2020, which was ordered by Trump.
Trump said Israel relayed to the United States on the night before the operation that it had decided not to participate. Trump said Israel officials did not explain why they came to that decision.
“I’ll never forget that Bibi Netanyahu let us down. That was a very terrible thing,” Trump said, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
Israel has vowed to annihilate the Hamas movement that rules the Gaza Strip, in retribution for the deadliest militant attack on civilians in Israeli history, when hundreds of gunmen crossed the barrier and rampaged through towns on Saturday.
Israeli officials say the death toll inside Israel has risen to more than 1,300. Most were civilians gunned down in their homes, on the streets or at a dance party. Scores of Israeli and foreign hostages, including Americans, were taken back to Gaza; Israel says it has identified 97 of them.
Gaza authorities said more than 1,500 Palestinians have been killed and more than 6,000 have been wounded in retaliatory air strikes by Israel.