Violence in Israel and Gaza is impacting the 2024 presidential campaign in an unexpected fashion, after former President Trump sparked controversy with peculiar comments in a speech.
Trump’s GOP primary rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, hit the former president hard in the 24 hours that followed, leveling some of his harshest and most direct criticism to date — including calling Trump’s remarks “absurd.”
But the DeSantis jabs, in turn, are sparking a fightback from Trump loyalists, who contend that the Florida governor is showing desperation by seeking to reap political advantage from the crisis while he lags badly in the polls.
“Ron DeSantis and his campaign look like members of the Lincoln Project to the base right now,” said one GOP operative supportive of Trump, referring to the stridently anti-Trump group.
“You guys [in the media] all bit on it, but it has backfired with the base.”
The furor was kicked off when Trump spoke Wednesday before a friendly crowd in West Palm Beach, Fla.
In remarks that appeared unscripted, Trump went after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for purportedly not being supportive enough of the U.S. as it planned the 2020 U.S. assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force.
Soleimani was assassinated in a U.S. drone strike in January of that year, while Trump was president.
“I’ll never forget that Bibi Netanyahu let us down,” Trump said. “That was a very terrible thing.”
Trump also contended that Netanyahu had sought to claim partial credit for the operation after he knew it had been successfully completed.
Separately, Trump said that Hezbollah, the Iranian-supported militant group whose stronghold is in southern Lebanon, abutting Israel’s northern border, is “very smart.”
He made that remark in the context of criticizing the Israeli defense minister for allegedly drawing attention to Israel’s vulnerability in the north. And he further added that, when it came to Israel’s defense generally, “They’ve got to straighten it out.”
DeSantis went on the offensive within hours.
In a Wednesday evening tweet, he contended that it was “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.’”
The Florida governor remained on the attack through Thursday. He told a Fox News reporter that Trump’s comment taking aim at Netanyahu “makes no sense.”
While filing paperwork for the New Hampshire primary, DeSantis told reporters: “We need to all be on the same page. Now’s not the time to air personal grievances about an Israeli prime minister. Now’s the time to support their right to defend themselves to the hilt.”
The reference to “personal grievances” was interpreted by some as a reference to Trump’s lingering ill-feeling about Netanyahu congratulating President Biden on his election in 2020.
Netanyahu’s acknowledgment of Biden’s victory came five days after Election Day, while Trump was still furiously insisting the result was in doubt.
DeSantis was not the only GOP candidate to take aim at Trump’s remarks.
Former Vice President Mike Pence said during a New Hampshire TV appearance that Hezbollah “aren’t smart, they’re evil.”
But it was DeSantis’s remarks that got the most attention.
That’s partly because he remains in second place — albeit a very distant second place — in most polls of the GOP primary.
But it’s also because it is part of a bigger picture in which the Florida governor has proven more willing to take swipes at Trump.
DeSantis accused Trump of being “missing in action” late last month at the second Republican debate, in which the former president again declined to participate.
At the outset of DeSantis’s campaign, his attacks on Trump were far more oblique.
Critics would contend the change has been forced on DeSantis by his downward drift in national polls.
The Florida governor, who was receiving more than 30 percent support in the RealClearPolitics polling average of the GOP race in mid-February, had ticked down to about 13 percent Thursday.
DeSantis’s hold on second place is coming under an increasing challenge from Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who has impressed at debates. Haley’s time as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations also gives her added authority on foreign policy.
Now the question is whether Trump’s remarks give the Florida governor an opening with the Iowa caucuses three months away.
The Trump campaign defended itself on social media Thursday, writing from its War Room account that “smart does not equal good” and that Trump “was clearly pointing out how incompetent Biden and his administration were by telegraphing to the terrorists an area that is susceptible to an attack.”
The hasty defense may betray some nervousness on the campaign’s part. Feelings are raw, in the United States as well as in Israel, about the brutality of the surprise attack by Hamas on Saturday that killed around 1,200 Israelis. As of Thursday afternoon, more than 1,400 Palestinians had been killed in Israeli reprisals.
Still, for all the sensitivity of the issue, two facts remain salient.
First, Trump’s polling lead in the GOP primary is enormous — 45 points in the RealClearPolitics national average. Second, the former president has emerged unscathed from controversies on sensitive topics before, going all the way back to his disparaging comments early in his 2016 campaign about the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) being captured during the Vietnam War.
Even some ardent Trump critics question whether this time will really be different.
Trump “ought to just keep his mouth shut,” said Rick Tyler, a GOP consultant who was communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) 2016 presidential campaign. “But unfortunately, foreign policy rarely makes a difference in Republican primaries.”
John “Mac” Stipanovich, a longtime GOP operative in Florida and a strong Trump critic, called the former president’s comments “stupid.” But he also acknowledged that they might not carry a lasting impact amid a crisis that has taken such a huge human toll.
“What happened in Israel is just so horrific, so awful, that Trump saying something stupid on the margins I don’t think is going to be fatal for him by any means,” Stipanovich said.
Some voices in Israel are in no mood to shrug Trump’s comments off, however.
Shlomo Karhi, Israel’s communications minister, told Israeli television that the former president’s speech was “shameful” because of the way it “abets propaganda and disseminates things that wound the spirit of Israel’s fighters and its citizens.”