Trump talk

Trump preparing to attend RJC summit after criticizing Netanyahu

The confab with GOP presidential candidates will come shortly after the Republican Jewish group offered praise of Biden’s support for Israel

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump finishes a campaign event at the Dallas County Fairgrounds on October 16, 2023 in Adel, Iowa.

Former President Donald Trump is expected to make a rare and eagerly anticipated appearance alongside several GOP opponents at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership summit in Las Vegas next week. 

But as he prepares to speak at the high-profile donor confab, which he has not addressed in person for four years, an uncomfortable reality is emerging amid fierce bipartisan backlash over his controversial comments on Hamas’ attacks in Israel.

In recent days, Trump has faced widespread condemnation from his Republican rivals, many of whom will be in Las Vegas, after he criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, questioned Israel’s intelligence agencies and characterized Hezbollah, the Iran-backed terror group, as “very smart.”

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has won high marks from Jewish Republican leaders for his strong solidarity with Israel in the wake of Hamas’ incursion last week. David Friedman, Trump’s former ambassador to Israel, said he was “deeply grateful” for Biden’s “exceptional” support. And even Matt Brooks, the RJC’s chief executive, voiced a rare note of gratitude for what he described as the president’s “tremendous” and “unwavering” commitment to Israel “at a critical time.”

Trump and his allies have sought to walk back his initial remarks, which he delivered to a crowd of supporters in heavily Jewish West Palm Beach last Wednesday.

In posts to his Truth Social account, the former president has voiced support for Netanyahu and praised “the skill and determination” of Israel’s military. Trump’s campaign has said his comments were misinterpreted. And a Trump-aligned super PAC recently released a rare defensive TV ad in Iowa underscoring his Middle East policy bona fides.

During a campaign stop in Iowa on Monday, Trump continued to defend his record, claiming that he had “fought for Israel like no president ever before.”

While experts are skeptical that the uproar over Trump’s comments will significantly dent his dominant position in the Republican primary, his recent course correction on Israel suggests at least one potential vulnerability among evangelical voters, who represent a crucial voting bloc in Iowa, a key early primary state. 

“Between Donald Trump’s fangirling Hamas, and Marjorie Taylor Greene’s obsession with Jewish lasers, I assure you the evangelical community in America would prefer these folks sell their crazy someplace else,” a senior political operative with a national evangelical organization, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said in a text message to Jewish Insider on Monday.

The timing of Trump’s remarks, which came just a few days after the attacks in Israel, also gave an opening to his GOP primary rivals, several of whom will be speaking at the RJC summit next Friday at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who has recently stepped up his attacks on Trump, was first to condemn the former president, whose comments he called “absurd.” His statement was followed by denunciations from Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who said Trump was a “fool” for calling Hezbollah “smart.”

A campaign spokesperson for Christie, who is a frequent and unvarnished critic of Trump, said there was “no doubt” that he will be drawing scrutiny to the former president’s comments on Israel in his upcoming RJC speech. “He’ll address the elephant in the room and won’t dance around the issue,” the spokesperson told JI on Monday.

The lone candidate who has defended Trump’s comments, Vivek Ramaswamy, who is expected to address the RJC summit next week, has also faced blowback in recent weeks for his comments on Israel, reflecting a small divide over Middle East policy within the GOP primary field.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the topics he plans to cover in his speech. Trump has addressed attendees only by video during the previous two leadership summits in Las Vegas. 

Trump’s speech next week will be particularly notable because he skipped the last two Republican debates and has indicated that he does not intend to participate in the next one, which will take place on Nov. 8 in Miami. It will be hosted by NBC News and co-sponsored by the RJC, the group announced on Monday.

In a statement, former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN), an RJC national chairman, said “the issue of American foreign policy has taken on an even greater role” as the conflict between Hamas and Israel has unfolded. “American strength and American resolve — and our candidates’ vision for America’s role in the world — are more important than ever.”

The RJC did not respond to a request for comment about the leadership summit on Monday.

Barry Funt, an RJC board member and GOP donor in New Jersey, said he was skeptical that Trump’s comments would dampen the enthusiasm of Jewish Republican supporters who have long excused his personal conduct because of his administration’s achievements in the Middle East, including the Abraham Accords.

“I don’t think any one statement is going to move the needle,” Funt explained in an interview with JI on Monday. “When it comes to Trump, there are the things he says and the things he does, and I think for people who dislike him, they focus on what he says, and the people who like him focus on what he does.”

Funt said he was “not moved one way or the other” by Trump’s remarks last week. “I don’t think they’re disqualifying in light of his record,” he explained. “Are they helpful? No. Did I wish he didn’t make them? Sure.”

Eric Levine, a GOP fundraiser and RJC board member who is vocally anti-Trump, agreed that Trump’s Jewish backers would be unlikely to abandon him over his recent statements on Israel. “From my perspective, if you’re a hardcore Trump voter there’s nothing he can say or do that’s going to sway your confidence in the cult,” he told JI.

But Levine, who supports Scott’s campaign, cautioned that Trump’s comments speak to a broader problem as the former president has continued to dominate the primary field. “People should be really, really concerned about a second Trump administration,” he said. “This really points out how laser-focused he is on revenge.”

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