LAS VEGAS — Despite having praised the anti-Israel group Hezbollah as “very smart” and disparaging Israeli leaders just days after an attack that killed well over a thousand people in the country, Donald Trump nevertheless received a hero’s welcome Saturday at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual conference.
Trump, the eighth and final speaker at a forum of 2024 GOP presidential candidates, got a lengthy standing ovation before he even said a word in a massive ballroom at The Venetian Resort on the Las Vegas Strip.
“I love Israel,” he said to cheers. “I love Israel.”
Over the next half-hour, the former president ticked off all the things he had done for the country and encouraged Israel to wipe out Hamas, whose members carried out the Oct. 7 assault, while criticizing U.S. President Joe Biden’s calls for Israel to restrain its retaliatory strikes to avoid harming civilians.
“Every single life that is lost in this conflict is on the shoulders of Hamas alone,” Trump said to more cheers.
Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition’s CEO, said he understood why attendees gave Trump a pass on his comments, considering Trump’s “incredible pro-Israel record” during his four years in office. “His record is unblemished on this,” Brooks said.
Ari Fleischer, a press secretary in the George W. Bush White House and a member of the group’s board of directors, said most Jewish Republicans still back Trump. “He shouldn’t have said it,” Fleischer said of Trump’s comments. “But his record is so strong and so good, he still has a deep pool of goodwill.”
Trump’s remarks praising Hezbollah came just four days after Hamas, the Gaza-based militant group, killed more than 1,400 people in Israel, according to the country, with another 200 taken hostage. “You know, Hezbollah is very smart. They’re all very smart,” Trump told his West Palm Beach audience in a speech that also denigrated Israeli military officials and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Trump, who as president reversed several U.S. policies to encourage Netanyahu to do as he pleased, soured on the Israeli leader after he called to congratulate Biden after the 2020 election. Trump falsely claimed then, and continues to falsely claim now, that he actually won.
While attendees at the annual summit said they were irked by Trump’s remarks, many said they would not hold them against him as he seeks the 2024 GOP nomination because, as president, he moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, supported the building of even more Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank territory, recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, and helped broker a normalization treaty between Israel and multiple Arab countries.
“There is nobody who did more for Israel than Trump,” said Sinan Gursoy, a cardiologist in Naples, Florida, as he downplayed Trump’s previous remarks. “This is his style. People have got to get used to it.”
Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, pointed to Trump’s comments as an example of the sort of rhetoric that Americans grew weary of during his presidency. “The simple truth is, Trump’s erratic attacks on Israel are par for the course for a man who undermined our national security and embarrassed our nation on the world stage,” said campaign spokesperson T.J. Ducklo. “The more Trump speaks, the more voters are reminded just how dangerous and unfit to lead he is.”
Among Trump’s rivals for the 2024 GOP nomination, though, only former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley criticized Trump. She said that in a time of conflict in Israel and Russia’s continuing assault on Ukraine, the United States could not afford another Trump presidency.
“We cannot have four years of chaos, vendettas and drama. Eight years ago it was good to have a leader that broke things. Now we need a leader that knows how to put things back together,” she said. “America needs a captain that will steady the ship, not capsize it. And Republicans need a candidate who can actually win.”