Former president Donald Trump and other Republican contenders for the White House in 2024 sought to blame Biden’s policies for emboldening militants. Members of Congress, operating without a House speaker, provided assurances that the United States would stand by Israel. And Biden’s allies pushed back against what they called the spread of disinformation from the president’s political opponents.
The political jockeying reflects how the Biden administration’s foreign policy has become a central point of contention in the presidential campaign.
“We used to say that politics stop at the water’s edge and, especially when it came to Israel, there was a fairly unified front,” said Brett Bruen, who served on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. “Certain politicians are trying to score political points from what is just a horrible tragedy.”
During a campaign rally in Waterloo, Iowa, Trump condemned the “Hamas terrorist invasion” and encouraged Israel to respond “very powerfully.”
He alleged, without evidence, that a deal the Biden administration reached with Iran freeing up $6 billion was to blame for Hamas’s increased aggression.
“I would not be at all surprised if part of that tremendous wealth that they just accumulated went into, all of a sudden, watching this level of aggression,” said Trump, who has boasted of a particularly close relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “They didn’t have that level of aggression with me.”
Trump appeared to be reflecting the allegation that a deal the Biden administration reached with Iran last month — involving a prisoner swap and the freeing up of about $6 billion in frozen Iranian oil funds — helped fund Saturday’s surprise attack by Hamas. The funds involved in the deal, which included the release of five American citizens detained in Iran, were not U.S. taxpayer dollars but Iranian money that had been frozen under U.S. penalties. Other GOP presidential candidates, including former vice president Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, echoed the allegation in comments Saturday.
While the United States has long labeled Iran a leading state-sponsor of terrorism and has previously linked the Iranian regime to attacks on Israel, there is no evidence that the $6 billion of Iranian funds were used in Saturday’s action. Under the arrangement, the Iranian funds can be used only to purchase items from vetted providers of humanitarian goods and services allowed under existing penalties.
The Iranian funds in question have not even been spent yet, according to National Security Council Spokeswoman Adrienne Watson, who condemned the “false accusation” in a statement.
“I can’t comment on 2024 because of the Hatch Act. But I can clarify the facts: Not a single cent from these funds has been spent, and when it is spent, it can only be spent on things like food and medicine for the Iranian people,” she said. “These funds have absolutely nothing to do with the horrific attacks today and this is not the time to spread disinformation.”
The political swipes came at a particularly weighted moment. The assault by the Islamist militia Hamas, who also took captives, coincided with the 50th anniversary of the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. The Saturday attack, which has killed at least 250 Israelis and injured thousands more, according to the national emergency service Magen David Adom, is one of the most serious in years after weeks of rising tensions along the volatile border.
Israeli strikes have killed at least 230 people in the Gaza Strip, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, another candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, did not attack Biden in her initial statement about the attack.
“Make no mistake: Hamas is a bloodthirsty terrorist organization backed by Iran and determined to kill as many innocent lives as possible,” she said.
For his part, Biden has condemned the attacks and told Netanyahu in a phone call that the United States was willing to provide any needed support to Israel.
In remarks from the White House on Saturday, he declared that “the United States stands with Israel” and “will not ever fail to have their backs.”
He also warned others from trying to harm Israel in the aftermath of the attacks.
“Let me say this as clearly as I can: This is not a moment for any party hostile to Israel to exploit these attacks to seek advantage,” he said. “The world is watching.”
Other GOP candidates sought to counter Biden’s claim that his support has been “rock solid and unwavering,” accusing the president in sharply worded statements of failing to stand up for Israel.
“Joe Biden’s policies that have gone easy on Iran has helped to fill their coffers,” DeSantis said.
“America’s weakness is blood in the water for bad actors,” Scott said.
“This is what happens when America’s president projects weakness on the world stage,” Pence said.
While Biden and Netanyahu have had open disagreements in recent months over Israel’s judicial restructuring and other issues emerging from Israel’s far-right government, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Herzog said the president’s message was well received by the prime minister.
“It was a very good call and we appreciate very strong statements of support issued by the White House and the State Department,” Herzog said on CNN. “I think everybody understands that this unprovoked attack on Israel deserves a very strong and unequivocal condemnation and support for Israel’s right to self-defense.”
Herzog expressed confidence that the White House and Congress would be able to provide any needed support to Israel. The ability of the United States to provide legislative support could be hampered by the paralysis in the U.S. House of Representatives, which is operating without a speaker after the ousting of former speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Tuesday. The removal brought the chamber to a standstill.
“Right now we are assessing the situation, assessing our needs and, to the extent that we will need some support, we will not hesitate to ask for it,” Herzog said. “I’m confident that the administration and Congress will support Israel in this difficult moment.”
Marianne LeVine in Waterloo, Iowa, contributed to this report.