Donald Trump, After Bashing Netanyahu, Is Trying to Shore Up His Pro-Israel Cred

Given the hyperpolarized state of American politics, it was perhaps inevitable that the Israel-Hamas war would become a flash point in the 2024 presidential election. Republicans have been competing to outdo each other in their expressions of support for Israel. Last weekend, Republican presidential candidates descended on Las Vegas for the annual meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition at the Venetian. Donald Trump positioned himself as the most pro-Israel candidate in the field. “I will defend our friend and ally the State of Israel like nobody has ever defended,” Trump told the 1,000-plus crowd of donors and activists. Twice Trump said: “I love Israel.” After his RJC speech, Trump reportedly had a private dinner with Miriam Adelson, the widow of late GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.

Trump’s effusive speech was damage control for having criticized Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and calling Hezbollah “very smart” days after Hamas militants invaded Israel and murdered 1,400 people on October 7. Trump’s comments opened himself up to rare criticism on the right. “I’m so ashamed of what he said,” Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, told The Washington Post on October 12. “How does he expect support from people who care about Israel after making statements like this?” Nikki Haley, speaking at the RJC said: “As president, I will not compliment Hezbollah. Nor will I criticize Israel’s prime minister in the middle of tragedy and war.”

Trump advisers have been worried that bashing Netanyahu in the middle of a war would hurt Trump politically with pro-Israel GOP voters. Republicans, in private, are praising Joe Biden’s strong support for Israel. “A+” a Republican donor texted me. For Republicans, Biden backing Israel is a win-win. He is giving Republicans a policy they favor while at the same time alienating progressive voters, a key part of the Democratic base. “He’s continuing to support Israel under massive pressure from his left flank, so you gotta give him credit for that,” a GOP operative said.

There are signs Biden won’t stay in total lockstep with Netanyahu, whom White House aides reportedly see as potentially losing power in Israel given dwindling public support. The president this week suggested a “pause” on humanitarian grounds, though still stopped short of calling for a cease-fire, bucking the demands of some lawmakers in his party and potentially turning off voters. According to an October 31 poll, Biden’s support among Arab Americans, a key constituency in Midwest battleground states, plunged to 17%.

Behind the scenes, Trump has reached out to Jewish leaders to remind them of his pro-Israel record. Klein told me that Trump called to explain his criticism of Netanyahu. “I tell the truth and that’s the truth,” Klein recalled Trump saying. To which Klein said he responded: “In marriage and politics you don’t always tell the whole truth.” According to Klein, Trump laughed.

The Trump campaign declined to comment.

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