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Biden gains ground among Republicans on Israel response as Trump stumbles

President Joe Biden appears to have gained some ground among Republicans when it comes to his response to the Israel-Hamas war as former President Donald Trump has faced criticism from top GOP lawmakers and Israeli officials for his initial reaction.

Hamas, which the U.S. designates as a terrorist organization, on October 7 led the deadliest Palestinian militant attack on Israel in history. Israel subsequently launched its heaviest ever airstrikes on Gaza. As of Sunday, more than 1,300 people had been killed in Israel, the Associated Press reported. Over 2,300 people had been killed in Gaza, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, the AP reported.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said his country is “at war” and has cut off supplies of food, fuel, electricity and medicine into Gaza. Israel has called up 360,000 army reservists as it prepares for a likely ground offensive into the territory, which has an estimated population of around 2.3 million. Although that offensive was expected to start today, it has been delayed for now.

Israel is an issue that has increasingly divided Republicans and Democrats in recent years. Progressive Democrats have grown much more critical of the Israeli government, while some have voiced strong support for Palestinians. Biden himself had previously clashed with Netanyahu over his government’s controversial shift further right.

At the outset of the latest conflict, all eyes were on the president to see how he would respond as the key U.S. ally faced a historic crisis. Biden asserted his administration’s firm support for Israel in the face of Hamas aggression.

He has expressed strong unconditional backing for Israel, despite a faction of progressive Democrats raising alarms about the treatment of Palestinians. As a result, Biden has drawn praise from Republicans and Democrats alike, while Israeli officials have voiced their gratitude to the administration.

Conversely, Trump’s early response to the war has faced substantial backlash, as he raised an old beef with Netanyahu and called Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, a “jerk.” He also described Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which the U.S. also designates as a terrorist organization and has repeatedly exchanged fire with Israel since the start of the conflict, as “very smart.”

“That was a huge mistake,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told NBC News’ Meet the Press on Sunday, referring to Trump’s remarks on Israel. Although Graham also highlighted Trump administration policies and actions that he views as positive for Israel, the GOP senator lauded Biden’s response to the conflict.

“I want to applaud President Biden for his strong statement in support of Israel,” the senator said.

Trump’s former United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, who is challenging him for the GOP’s 2024 nomination, also strongly criticized his remarks. “That makes America look weak,” Haley, who previously served as the governor of South Carolina, told CNN‘s State of the Union on Sunday.

“This is not the time to bash a leader,” she said, referring to Trump’s remarks about Netanyahu.

A number of other Republicans called out Trump over the remarks last week, particularly raising alarms about his comments describing Hezbollah as “very smart.”

“Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, the greatest state sponsor of terrorism, these are states and entities that are focused on wiping Israel off the face of the earth. That is neither smart nor good,” Representative Mike Lawler, a New York Republican, told NBC News on Thursday.

Posting to X, formerly Twitter, Georgia’s GOP Governor Brian Kemp wrote: “Women, children, elderly, Israelis, and Americans alike have been slaughtered by these evil terrorists. It is never acceptable to praise deranged murderers or undermine one of our closest allies in their darkest hour.”

On Thursday, Israeli Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi denounced Trump’s remarks. “[It is] shameful that a man like that, a former US president, abets propaganda and disseminates things that wound the spirit of Israel’s fighters and its citizens,” Karhi told Israel’s Channel 13. “We don’t have to bother with him and the nonsense he spouts.”

Meanwhile, polling released on Sunday by ABC News and Ipsos showed a small, but notable, positive sign for Biden among Republican voters. The survey data revealed that the GOP’s approval of Biden’s response to the Israel-Hamas conflict is substantially higher than the minimal single digit approval he receives from conservative voters on issues including inflation, gun violence and Iran foreign policy. Comparatively nearly one in five (18 percent) of GOP voters gave the president positive marks on his handling of the escalating Middle Eastern war.

That data comes after conservative magazine National Review published an article praising Biden for moving to “put distance between the far Left and his party’s center in voters’ minds” when it comes to the issue of Israel.

“Biden is finally setting the tone again now. His highest priority today is not to paper over irreconcilable divisions between centrist Democrats and progressives who too often appeal to the rubric of oppressed and oppressor to excuse or explain away acts of violence. It’s to separate the latter from the former in the public’s mind, and thus preserve his party’s appeal to the vast majority of Americans whose instinct is to sympathize with Israelis,” Noah Rothman, a senior writer at the magazine, wrote Wednesday.

“This will sound surprising, but by and large, the president has shown tremendous support, unwavering support, for Israel at a critical time,” Matt Brooks, the head of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told The New York Times last week. “The American people and the international community have seen a president who has stood shoulder to shoulder with Israel.”

Trump’s former ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman, a Republican, had high praise for Biden’s response to the crisis.

“While I have been, and remain, deeply critical of the Biden Administration, the moral, tactical, diplomatic and military support that it has provided Israel over the past few days has been exceptional. As one living in Jerusalem with children who are Israeli citizens, I am deeply grateful. I pray that American support continues in the difficult days ahead,” he wrote in a Thursday X post.

Whether Biden’s support for Israel is enough to breakthrough the political polarization dividing Americans remains to be seen. Trump has appeared to take pains to correct from his initial stumble, reiterating his strong support for Israel and even calling for a ban on Palestinian supporters on university campuses.

Biden has also faced significant criticism from Republicans over his efforts to improve ties with Iran. Many have pointed to those efforts, as well as the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal, as signs of weakness when it comes to foreign policy. They’ve argued these Biden policies have emboldened America’s enemies.

Newsweek reached out to the White House and Trump press representatives via email for comment.

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