WASHINGTON – Donald J. Trump, real estate tycoon and front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, offered an unusually detailed policy speech on Israel and the Middle East at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference on Monday night.
The speech was a departure from his typical speechifying: Trump used a teleprompter, from which he read crisp remarks on the complexities of the threats facing the Jewish state. He spoke extensively of Israel’s willingness to resume negotiations with the Palestinians without preconditions, and its opposition to a political framework for a two-state solution imposed by the UN Security Council.
He distinguished between the nuclear deal reached with Iran last summer and preexisting international laws on its ballistic missile work, and detailed how he, as president, would address both threats.
Trump repeatedly received standing ovations, and few audience members were seen leaving the massive stadium hall despite a planned protest of the controversial candidate.
The following day, AIPAC leadership expressed regret to President Barack Obama for Trump’s attack on him during his speech, and for the loud applause it earned.
“While we may have policy differences, we deeply respect the office of the President of the United States and our President Barack Obama,” Lillian Pinkus, the newly installed president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said Tuesday, joined by other AIPAC lay and professional leaders.
“There are people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night and for that we are deeply sorry,” Pinkus said, her voice choking. “We are deeply disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with nor condone.”
To date, Trump’s campaign has been defined by accusations of racism, xenophobia, bullying and a stubborn refusal to delve into the weeds of policymaking. And on the issue of Israel, Trump had repeatedly stated before Monday night that he would remain “neutral” in the state’s decades-old conflict with the Palestinians, in pursuit of a historic “deal of all deals” – a two-state solution.
“I’m a newcomer to politics – but not to backing the Jewish state,” he told the crowd.
While he said he did not come to pander to the group on Israel, he continued to wax poetic over the state’s moral compass, its positive role in the world as a liberal democracy and America’s clear interests in standing by its side.
Trump said his “number one priority” is to dismantle the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the formal name for the nuclear deal with Iran. He will do so, he said, by aggressively policing the deal, and not by “ripping it to shreds on day one” in the Oval Office as his primary rival, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, vowed to do in his own speech to AIPAC on Monday night.
“I’ve studied this issue in great detail,” Trump asserted, “greater than anyone else.”
He received laughs from the room, which he acknowledged with a smirk; but he continued to explain how the deal would “place limits on its military nuclear program” for a finite period, only to allow Tehran to develop an “industrial- sized nuclear capability” in over a decade.
And while he acknowledged that Iran’s continued ballistic missile program was not included in the JCPOA, he said that the Obama administration’s failure to incorporate that work into the deal was just another example of its many flaws.
A peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, Trump said, could never be achieved by an outside party – particularly by the UN, which he characterized as an organization woefully biased against the Jewish state. He promised to veto any such resolution as president.
“There is no moral equivalency,” Trump asserted. “You cannot achieve peace if terrorists are treated as martyrs.”
“That will end and it will end soon,” he added. “Believe me.”
Trump said he would ensure no “daylight” exists between the US and Israel – a common term in Washington to describe a policy gap. His use of the word, and the speech as a whole, suggested Trump may be taking a step toward formal speechmaking and away from his more blustering, colorful and unscripted rhetoric.
But Cruz came out swinging on the heels of Trump’s speech, attacking him for repeatedly using the term “Palestine.”
“Palestine has not existed since 1948,” Cruz asserted, to applause. The Texas senator, who is facing an uphill fight for delegates to the Republican national nominating convention, took the audience through his record in the Senate of fighting for Israeli government interests, and against Iran.
“Appeasement increases the chance of military conflict,” Cruz said. “This nuclear deal is Munich in 1938.”
As part of his attack on the UN, the Texan senator added that he would personally fly to New York to exercise the US veto on any UN Security Council resolution which would seek to force a framework on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
And Cruz also criticized Trump for his comments earlier in the day – just hours before his prepared, primetime speech – in which he called for the US to partially divest from both Israel and NATO.
Ohio Governor John Kasich – another GOP candidate trailing far behind his competitors in delegates – also offered a policy-heavy speech. Condemning a “culture of hatred and death” among the Palestinians, he joined his Republican colleagues in condemning unilateral moves toward a two-state solution and called on Palestinian Authority leadership to condemn the wave of terrorist attacks against Israeli and American civilians.
Kasich hailed a convergence of interests between Israel and the Arab world, emphasized by US Vice President Joe Biden and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton in their own AIPAC speeches. But he lamented that the US, up to this point, has failed to foster those relationships into lasting relations.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan also addressed the group on Monday night, touting Congress’s commitment to providing robust foreign military financing to the Jewish state. He announced that his first trip abroad as speaker will be to Israel next month.
Ryan took the opportunity to criticize the Iran nuclear deal, concluded last summer over the strong objections of AIPAC members. “It is your right to petition your government on any issue at any time,” he told the crowd.
In the heat of its fight with AIPAC, the Obama administration criticized lobbies for taking out large ads denouncing the deal in terms that irked American Jewish groups, wary of classic anti-Semitic tropes that associate Jews with money and power.
The deal was a “steal,” Ryan said. “And that’s even if they don’t cheat.”
The Obama administration, he concluded, “fails to understand what our allies need.”
While all the Republicans featured on Monday night’s program received warm receptions from the 18,000-strong pro-Israel audience, so too did Biden and Clinton, who also committed to aggressive enforcement of the JCPOA and to opposing actions at the Security Council.
AIPAC aims to maintain bipartisan support in Washington and among its members.
JTA contributed to this report.