Republicans, for many years, have been pursuing a unique political project: Defend Israel as stridently as they can, and hope that the traditionally Democratic Jewish vote flows their way.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, he moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognized the Golan Heights as part of Israel, and did little to push Israel to make peace with the Palestinians. He presided over peace agreements Israel reached with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, even though Israel had never been at war with either country.
Did it work? Exit polls from 2020 were inconclusive. The Republican Jewish Coalition claimed Trump got 30 percent of the Jewish vote, with liberal group J Street countering that he obtained just 21 percent.
Then again, others would argue that the Republican push to support Israel is more about appealing to conservative Christians than to Jewish voters.
Now, with Israel back on the front page, it’s become an issue in the 2024 campaign — in a surprising way.
Ever since Hamas attacked Israel just over a week ago, Trump has made a series of bizarre statements about the situation, including praising Hezbollah as “very smart” and criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump is said to be angry at the prime minister for not going along with the Trump-ordered killing of Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in early 2020. Trump also reacted negatively when Netanyahu publicly congratulated President Joe Biden on his victory in the 2020 election, at a time when Trump was still casting doubt on the outcome.
“Nobody did more for Bibi. And I liked Bibi. I still like Bibi,” Trump said at the time, according to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot. “But I also like loyalty… Bibi could have stayed quiet. He has made a terrible mistake.”
Following the comments this week, Trump’s Republican opponents for president have tried to pounce on the frontrunner.
Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, called the comments “reckless and irresponsible,” per the Washington Post. Haley called them “not what we need in a president.” Chris Christie called Trump a “fool.”
“He attacked Bibi after the country suffered the worst attack it’s had in its modern history,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters this week, the newspaper said. “That’s about him. That’s not about the greater good of what Israel is trying to do or American security.”
“To speak in a critical way about Prime Minister Netanyahu, to refer to the terrorist organization Hezbollah as very smart, I think was incomprehensible to me,” Pence said, per the Post. “I believe this is a moment where we ought to send a steely resolve to the enemies of Israel.”
Speaking in “a critical way about Prime Minister Netanyahu,” in fact, is something that plenty of Israelis have been doing for the past ten days, in blaming Netanyahu for not seeing the attacks coming.
Per a Post analysis, it was notable that these criticisms came amid a campaign in which most Republican candidates have been slow to criticize Trump.
“The widespread condemnations of Trump marked a departure from less ubiquitous attacks as his opponents seized on a moment to emphasize their conservative credibility on an issue that many in the GOP care about,” the Post analysis said. “The nearly united rebuke from his rivals was evident here in the key early state of New Hampshire at town halls and a multi-candidate summit as candidates continued to admonish Trump.”
There is little indication, however, that Trump’s comments about Israel will hurt him in the Republican race.
“Trump’s original grievance-based analysis reflects a transactional, unorthodox approach to foreign policy that often prioritizes his own personal goals over a standard understanding of the national interest. It also highlighted a contrast with his potential 2024 election opponent,” CNN said in an analysis. “Biden reacted to the attack by using all of the tools of traditional statesmanship, including rhetoric, personal behind-the-scenes contacts with key foreign leaders and by mobilizing allies. Like Trump, Biden has had a personal and political beef with Netanyahu — but shelved his differences with him weeks before the attack and has been in constant contact with the prime minister since it occurred.”
Author Expertise and Experience
Stephen Silver is a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive. He is an award-winning journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Stephen has authored thousands of articles over the years that focus on politics, technology, and the economy for over a decade. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @StephenSilver, and subscribe to his Substack newsletter.