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Former President Donald J. Trump drew scorn from both sides of the political aisle on Thursday for remarks that he made one day earlier criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and referring to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant group, as “very smart.”
During a speech to his supporters in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Wednesday, he weighed in on the Hamas attacks on Israel, the worst experienced by America’s closest Middle East in half a century.
Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group, has clashed with Israeli forces in the days after Hamas fighters from Gaza attacked border areas in southern Israel, intensifying concerns that the country could be drawn into a conflict on a second front.
“You know, Hezbollah is very smart,” Mr. Trump said. “They’re all very smart.”
He took swipes at Mr. Netanyahu orn the “Brian Kilmeade Show,” to a Fox News Radio show, broadcast on Thursday, arguing that intelligence lapses by Israel had left it vulnerable to the sweeping attack, kidnappings and slaughter of civilians leading to the war.
A broad spectrum of political rivals condemned Mr. Trump on Thursday, including the White House and several of his Republican primary opponents.
“Statements like this are dangerous and unhinged,” Andrew Bates, the deputy White House press secretary, said in a statement. “It’s completely lost on us why any American would ever praise an Iran-backed terrorist organization as ‘smart.’ Or have any objection to the United States warning terrorists not to attack Israel.”
While filing paperwork on Thursday to appear on the Republican primary ballot in New Hampshire, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is running a distant second to Mr. Trump in national polls, also admonished his main rival.
“You’re not going to find me throwing verbal grenades at Israeli leadership,” said Mr. DeSantis, whose campaign shared a clip Wednesday night of Mr. Trump’s Hezbollah remarks on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Former Vice President Mike Pence similarly objected to Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, saying that his former boss was sending the wrong message.
“Well look, this is no time for the former president or any other American leader to be sending any other message than America stands with Israel,” Mr. Pence said during a radio interview with “New Hampshire Today.”
Mr. Pence disputed Mr. Trump’s characterization of Hezbollah and pointed out that Mr. Trump’s compliments to a brutal figure were not new: Mr. Trump referred to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia as a “genius” and “very savvy” after Russia invaded Ukraine last year. And as president, Mr. Trump praised Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, as “very honorable.”
“Look, Hezbollah are not smart,” Mr. Pence said on Thursday. “They’re evil, OK.”
Gov. JB Pritzker of Illinois, a Democrat who is a national advisory board member for President Biden’s re-election campaign, slammed Mr. Trump in a statement on Thursday.
“No true friend of Israel, the Jewish people or of peace would praise Hezbollah just days after what President Biden and Jewish leaders have called the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust,” Mr. Pritzker said.
In a statement on Thursday, Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign, defended Mr. Trump’s comments. He accused the Biden administration of telegraphing his concerns about the potential for a Hezbollah offensive in northern Israel, and he cited a background briefing that a senior defense official gave to the media on Monday.
But the Israeli Army had already 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 had fired dozens of rockets and shells at three Israeli positions in a disputed area along Lebanon’s border with the Golan Heights.
“Hezbollah has operated there for decades,” Mr. Bates said. “And the United States’ words of deterrence have been welcomed across the board in Israel — unlike some other words that come to mind.”
Mr. Trump, who has frequently sought to cast himself as a champion for Israel, maligned Mr. Netanyahu on multiple occasions in recent days.
On Wednesday in Florida he said that Israel had in 2020 opted out of participating in the US drone strike that killed Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who the Pentagon said had been planning attacks on Americans across the region — despite its coordination on the plan.
“But I’ll never forget,” Mr. Trump said. “I’ll never forget that Bibi Netanyahu let us down. That was a very terrible thing.”
In the “Brian Kilmeade Show” interview, the former president criticized Mr. Netanyahu and Israeli intelligence as being poorly prepared for the attacks by Hamas on Saturday.
“Thousands of people knew about it, and they let this slip by,” he said. “That was not a good thing for him or for anybody.”
Mr. DeSantis said that Mr. Trump had crossed the line with his attack on Mr. Netanyahu.
“We all need to be on the same page,” he said. “Now is not the time to air personal grievances about an Israeli prime minister. Now is the time to support their right to defend themselves to the hilt.”
Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota and former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who is also challenging Mr. Trump for the Republican nomination, condemned his remarks as well.
“Shame on you, Donald,” Mr. Hutchinson wrote on X. “Your constant compliments to dictators, terrorist groups, and evil-doers are beneath the office you seek and not reflective of the American character.”
Speaking to reporters in New Hampshire, Mr. Burgum said that “smart” was not how he would describe Hezbollah or Hamas.
“I’d call them barbaric,” he said. “I’d call them inhumane. I’d call it unthinkable. But what Hezbollah and Hamas have done, but I don’t think I’d characterize them in any positive fashion — not when you see this incredible ability to conduct the atrocities that most of us would find as unthinkable and unimaginable.”
In an interview on CNN on Thursday, Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, told anchor Wolf Blitzer: “Only a fool would make those kinds of comments. Only a fool would give comments that could give aid and comfort to Israel’s adversary in this situation.”
While campaigning in New Hampshire on Thursday, Nikki Haley criticized Mr. Trump in response to a question from a voter during a town hall. “I don’t want him hitting Netanyahu,” she said, adding: “Who cares what he thinks about Netanyahu? This is not about that. “This is about the people of Israel.”
Jazmine Ulloa contributed reporting from Exeter, NH