Washington—It would be another 10 hours before he took the Verizon Center stage, but from the start of day two of the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, it was clear that Donald Trump was in the room.
In the lead-up to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s speech Monday morning, AIPAC leaders implored the crowd to show respect and restraint, praising the spirit of bipartisanship, the strength of political diversity and the importance of democratic participation—one that includes a “responsibility to hear all the candidates’ views of the American-Israeli relationship.” Among the scrolling images broadcast on arena screens was Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” accompanied by a request not to boo invited guests. And there was a stern reminder: Invitation, AIPAC Managing Director Richard Fishman cautioned, is not the same as endorsement.
News of Trump’s speaking slot at the conference—a forum where the candidates were to pitch their pro-Israel credentials to thousands of potential supporters—had roiled some in the American Jewish community who object to his rhetoric on Muslims, refugees and illegal immigration, among other issues. In the days leading up to the AIPAC event, the Anti-Defamation League vowed to redirect Trump’s past donations to anti-bias and anti-bullying education, while a group of rabbis called for a boycott of Trump’s speech.
Clinton, the first candidate to speak, enjoyed a warm welcome from the crowd, earning applause and cheers for her sharp condemnation of recent Palestinian violence against Israelis and a promise to invite the Israeli prime minister to the White House in her first days in office. She also won points for expressing alarm at the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel and addressing the college students in attendance. “I hope you stay strong,” she told them. “Keep speaking out. Don’t let anyone silence or bully you.”
The warm reception seemed to cool when Clinton defended her support of the Iran nuclear deal, which AIPAC actively lobbied against during negotiations. “I really believe that the U.S. and Israel and the world are safer as a result” of the deal, she said. But more hawkish declarations earned more vocal approval. Clinton conceded that Iran’s is “an extremist regime that threatens to annihilate Israel” and noted that “Tehran’s fingerprints are on nearly every conflict across the Middle East.” If they pursue nuclear arms, she said, the U.S. will use “force if necessary” to stop them.
Clinton was quick to focus her criticism on the Republican frontrunner—in particular, Trump’s past promises to remain neutral in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. “We need steady hands—not a president who says he’s neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday and who knows what on Wednesday, because everything’s negotiable,” she said. “My friends, Israel’s security is non-negotiable.”
Ohio Governor John Kasich, the first Republican candidate to speak later that evening, spoke of meeting with Avital Sharansky, wife of Soviet Union prisoner Natan Sharansky, during his first trip to Israel, touted his role in building a Holocaust memorial in Columbus and noted his presence during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech to Congress last year as evidence of his support. And with an implicit nod to his fellow candidate, Kasich vowed not to “take the low road to the highest office in the land.”
An emotional presentation by the nonprofit humanitarian agency IsraAID, which has contributed to Syrian refugee aid efforts, just before Trump’s speech seemed to highlight the tension surrounding the candidate’s positions.
But for his part, Trump seemed to have learned his lesson from the Republican Jewish Coalition candidate forum in December, when audience members booed his unwillingness to declare Jerusalem Israel’s undivided capital—and when he seemed to invoke anti-Semitic stereotypes in praising the crowd’s negotiating prowess and attributing their dislike to the fact that he didn’t want their money.
“I’m a newcomer to politics, but not to backing the Jewish state,” he said, noting that he sent a plane for former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani’s trip to Israel in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, and mentioning his role as grand marshal in an Israel Day parade in 2004. “Many people turned down this honor; I did not,” he said. “I took the risk, and I’m glad I did.”
Trump earned perhaps the loudest cheer of the night when he celebrated the winding down of the presidency of Barack Obama with a pointed “Yay.”
“He may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel, believe me. Believe me. And you know it better than anybody. So with the president in his final year, discussions have been swirling about an attempt to bring a Security Council resolution on terms of an eventual agreement between Israel and Palestine,” he said. “Let me be clear. An agreement imposed by the United Nations would be a total and complete disaster.”
Trump swore to veto such an agreement, and mocked “the utter weakness and incompetence of the United Nations,” which he called “not a friend of democracy,” nor to the U.S. or Israel.
Trump concluded on a friendly note. “My daughter Ivanka is about to have a beautiful Jewish baby,” he announced to cheers. “In fact, it could be happening right now, which would be very nice as far as I’m concerned.”
On Tuesday morning, AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus read a statement from the stage condemning Trump’s remarks in what reports describe as an emotional speech. “We say, unequivocally, that we do not countenance ad hominem attacks, and we take great offense against those that are levied against the president of the United States of America from our stage,” she said. “There are people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night, and for that we are deeply sorry.”
Like Kasich and Trump, Texas Senator Ted Cruz promised to end American participation in the Iran nuclear deal, with all three citing recent Iranian test missiles that had written on them in Hebrew the phrase “Israel must be wiped out.”
But Cruz —who opened his speech with the words “God bless AIPAC”—also had sharp words for Trump, whose use of the name “Palestine” he immediately criticized. “Palestine has not existed since 1948,” he said, as the audience applauded. But he he saved his harshest words for the militant group Hamas, which he called “terrorist monsters using children as human shields.”
Cruz pivoted quickly to a reference to the story of Purim—earning more cheers— and drew a parallel between “a wicked Persian king” and the challenges facing the U.S. and Israel, vowing to unite the Republican party to seal his victory and “defeat radical Islamic terrorism” together.
Cruz ended his speech with the words “Am Yisrael Chai.”
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was the only candidate not to make an appearance at the conference, instead offering a statement in his stead that noted his personal connection to Israel via his time living on a kibbutz. Sanders affirmed his commitment to a two-state solution, while criticizing settlement-building in the West Bank and calling for an end to the occupation of the territory and of the blockade of Gaza.