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Trump’s Call for Israel to ‘Finish Up’ War Alarms Some on the Right

Two Israeli journalists traveled to Palm Beach, Fla., a little over a week ago, hoping to elicit from Donald J. Trump a powerful expression of support for their country’s war in Gaza.

Instead, one of them wrote that what they heard from Mr. Trump at Mar-a-Lago “shocked us to the core.”

“Both U.S. presidential candidates, Biden and Trump, are turning their rhetorical backs on Israel,” concluded Ariel Kahana, a right-wing settler who is the senior diplomatic correspondent for Israel Hayom. The newspaper is owned by the billionaire Republican donor Miriam Adelson; Ms. Adelson herself arranged the interview with Mr. Trump, according to a person with direct knowledge of the planning.

What had Mr. Trump said that so alarmed Mr. Kahana?

He told the interviewers that Israel was losing public support for its Gaza assault, that the images of devastation were bad for Israel’s global image and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should end his war soon — statements that sounded far more like something President Biden might say than the kind of cheerleading Mr. Netanyahu has come to expect from Washington Republicans.

“You have to finish up your war,” Mr. Trump said. “You have to get it done. We have to get to peace. We can’t have this going on.”

That statement apparently troubled Mr. Kahana even more than Mr. Biden’s warnings to Israel. Mr. Biden has called for a six-week cease-fire in exchange for Hamas releasing Israeli hostages. In the interview excerpts released by Israel Hayom, Mr. Trump did not qualify his call for Israel to finish the war by insisting on the release of hostages.

“Trump effectively bypassed Biden from the left, when he expressed willingness to stop this war and get back to being the great country you once were,” Mr. Kahana wrote. “There’s no way to beautify, minimize or cover up that problematic message.”

Trump aides insisted this was a misinterpretation. A campaign spokeswoman, Karoline Leavitt, said that Mr. Trump “fully supports Israel’s right to defend itself and eliminate the terrorist threat,” but that Israel’s interests would be “best served by completing this mission as quickly, decisively and humanely as possible so that the region can return to peace and stability​.”

But there is no getting around the division between Mr. Trump and congressional Republicans, who seem to be competing to see who can more ostentatiously demonstrate support for Mr. Netanyahu’s government. They are flying to Israel to meet with Mr. Netanyahu, planning to invite him to address Congress and generally urging Israel to do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to annihilate Hamas.

In contrast, Mr. Trump’s hedging commentary to Israel Hayom is only the latest in a long line of public statements he has made to undercut Mr. Netanyahu, whom he has still not forgiven for congratulating Mr. Biden as the winner of the 2020 election.

In 2021, Mr. Trump told the Axios journalist Barak Ravid that he had concluded that Mr. Netanyahu “never wanted peace” with the Palestinians.

Mr. Trump’s first reaction to the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack was to criticize Mr. Netanyahu and Israeli intelligence services. Advisers privately pleaded with him to clean up his comments and he quickly turned to standard lines of support for Israel’s right to defend itself.

The ambiguity of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric about the Israel-Hamas war has let different audiences hear what they want in his public statements. He has said nothing of substance about what he would do differently from Mr. Biden on Israel policy if he were president, and his team again refused to get into specifics when questioned by The New York Times.

Given that void, right-wing supporters of Israel and Israelis like Mr. Kahana are parsing every utterance from Mr. Trump, worried that in a second term he might not be as reliable an ally as he was in his first term, when he gave Mr. Netanyahu nearly everything he wanted, including moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

“Those who support Trump and also are deeply supportive of Israel’s efforts to win the war with Hamas have to reconcile themselves with the fact that at a crucial moment when the administration seems to be speaking out of both sides of its mouth, and creating a sense of instability in the relationship between the United States and Israel, Trump exacerbated that instability as the putative nominee of the other party,” said John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary magazine and a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan.

“The only difference between Trump and Biden — and I say this as somebody who is not a supporter of Biden — is that Biden has put his money where his mouth is. He’s been sending arms,” Mr. Podhoretz added. “So that would seem to suggest that operationally, the problem with Biden is rhetoric and not policy. And all Trump is is rhetoric, and he’s not laying out any policy that should make anybody feel good.”

Mr. Trump’s former ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman, insisted in an interview that people were misreading Mr. Trump’s statements.

While he said he respected Mr. Kahana, Mr. Friedman suggested the reporter had over-interpreted Mr. Trump’s remarks: “I understand the fear of Republican isolationism, because there is a vein within the Republican Party that moves in that direction, but I didn’t hear him to say what he said. I heard him to say, ‘Finish the job’ — meaning defeat Hamas, defeat them decisively, defeat them as quickly as possible. And then move on.”

Some of Mr. Trump’s former advisers have filled the Trump policy vacuum with their own ideas to resolve the conflict. His son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has pursued foreign deals using relationships he built during the Trump administration, said at a Harvard University forum in February that “Gaza’s waterfront property could be very valuable” and that Palestinians should be “moved out” and transported to an area in the Negev Desert in southern Israel that would be bulldozed to accommodate them.

Mr. Friedman has gone much further than Mr. Kushner, who seemed to be only musing. Mr. Friedman has developed a proposal for Israel to claim full sovereignty over the West Bank — definitively ending the possibility of a two-state solution. West Bank Palestinians who have been living under Israeli military occupation since 1967 would not be given Israeli citizenship under the plan, Mr. Friedman confirmed in the interview.

It’s far from clear whether Mr. Trump would support this, though he did tell the Israeli interviewers that he planned to meet with Mr. Friedman to hear his ideas. Mr. Friedman said he had not yet discussed his plan with Mr. Trump.

Unlike Mr. Friedman, Mr. Trump has long clung to the possibility of a grand bargain between Israel and the Palestinians, insisting that only he can broker the “deal of the century.” Still, while in office, Mr. Trump acted so lopsidedly in favor of Israel that a two-state solution that would be acceptable to the Palestinians was never realistic.

John R. Bolton, a former national security adviser to Mr. Trump, who has become a sharp critic, said that Mr. Trump’s interview with Israel Hayom “proves the point that I’ve tried to explain to people: that Trump’s support for Israel in the first term is not guaranteed in the second term, because Trump’s positions are made on the basis of what’s good for Donald Trump, not on some coherent theory of national security.”

“What he said in this most recent interview was ambiguous to a certain extent, but it seemed to me to be verging on negative about Israel’s conduct of the war,” Mr. Bolton said in an interview. “And I think there’s more there than meets the eye.”

“What matters to Trump more than anything else is how you look in the press. So forget the justice of it,” he added. “It just looks bad.”

The way Mr. Bolton sees it, when his former boss warns Mr. Netanyahu that his image is failing, “he’s not worried about Israel’s image. He’s worried about his if he has to defend it.”

Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.

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