Some people sat silently. A small group walked out silently. And most stood and applauded as Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump took the stage on the evening of March 21 at a packed Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., one of two venues for this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Policy Conference.
Rare for Trump, he had prepared his speech in advance and even used teleprompters in an attempt to stay measured and allay some of Israel supporters’ biggest concerns — that he’s not knowledgeable about or interested in foreign policy and, most worrisome, that he will be “neutral” when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as he said in February at a town hall and repeated at a subsequent debate. Trump said before the speech that his Orthodox Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was one of the people who helped him write it.
“I didn’t come to you tonight to pander about Israel,” Trump said near the beginning of his address. “That’s what politicians do.”
He went on to enumerate a list of concerns about the Barack Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with the Iranian government, explaining how the range of Iran’s ballistic missiles could eventually put the United States within striking distance.
And he reassured the crowd that he has “studied this issue in great detail.”
“I would say, actually, greater by far than everybody else,” Trump boasted, prompting many in the crowd to laugh. “Believe me!”
The conference, which AIPAC officials said drew a record 18,000 attendees, many of whom were from Los Angeles, including delegations of 250 from Sinai Temple, 150 from Valley Beth Shalom and 93 from Beth Jacob Congregation. It was AIPAC’s first policy conference since the landmark nuclear agreement with Iran was approved by the U.S. Senate in September, dealing a major blow to AIPAC, which had attempted unsuccessfully to derail the deal in the Senate. The annual conference began March 20 and ended March 22, and took place at the Verizon Center and the nearby Walter E. Washington Convention Center, a sign of the Policy Conference’s remarkable year-to-year growth.
Although AIPAC’s role as a presidential campaign stop overshadowed the rest of the conference, Iran and fear of Islamist terrorism certainly were not absent from its agenda.
The Iranian nuclear deal and ISIS’ global terror reach were topics of several breakout sessions. “Stop a Nuclear Capable Iran” was one of four items on AIPAC’s lobbying agenda when members went to Capitol Hill on March 22; and AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr said in his address on the evening of March 20 at the Verizon Center, “We have every reason to be proud of our work, to have fought the right fight, and to raise the concerns that continue to this day.”
On the morning of March 21, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton was the first of the presidential candidates to address the conference. She was received very well, particularly considering she had supported the Iran deal and, in 2012, arranged secret meetings with Iranian diplomats. She hammered Trump without explicitly naming him, saying, “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.” Clinton used the word “neutral” or “neutrality” six times during her address, and exclaimed, to loud applause, and in clear reference to Trump: “If you see bigotry, oppose it. If you see violence, condemn it. If you see a bully, stand up to him.”
One of Clinton’s biggest applause lines came when she called out Palestinian leadership, not just Hamas but also Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, for inciting violence — something that supporters of Israel want Obama and the State Department to do more forcefully. “Palestinian leaders need to stop inciting violence, stop celebrating terrorists as martyrs and stop paying rewards to their families!” she said to a cheering crowd.
Despite a blockbuster lineup of speeches by Clinton and Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and John Kasich, seemingly nothing at this year’s conference could have overshadowed Trump’s appearance, which came amid an improbably successful campaign that has seen him denigrate and insult Mexican immigrants, Muslims, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly and nearly every one of his opponents in the Republican primary. He has called for violence against people who disrupt his rallies and offered up grandiose, often-changing policy positions, including plans to deport all of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, levy a 45 percent tariff on imported Chinese goods, temporarily bar all Muslims from entering the U.S. and make the Mexican government pay the U.S. government to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.
Trump’s position on Israel has been nearly as big an open question as his other core positions. He often cites his role, to the dismay and amusement of some Israel supporters, as the grand marshal in the 2004 Salute to Israel Parade in New York City as proof that he loves Israel. During his speech March 21, he added to that talking point when he said assuming that role in 2004 was dangerous.
“It was a very dangerous time for Israel and frankly for anyone supporting Israel,” Trump said. “Many people turned down this honor. I did not. I took the risk, and I’m glad I did.”
But his comments in a February town hall that he would be a “neutral guy” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have raised questions as to how much a friend of Israel he would be if elected.
He has made attempts to ease those concerns, with little success, such as by saying at a recent Republican debate that the only way to get a good peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians is by making the Palestinians think he’s neutral. “I think making a deal would be in Israel’s interests,” Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an interview on March 20. “I’ll tell you what, I don’t know one Jewish person that doesn’t want to have a deal, a good deal, a proper deal, but a really good deal.”
And just a few hours before his speech at AIPAC, Trump told reporters Israel should pay back the U.S. government for its defense aid, which amounts to billions of dollars a year. His answer came in response to a question about whether his stated policy to make U.S. allies pay back military aid would include Israel — as he has called for South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia to do.
“I think Israel will do that also, yeah, I think Israel do — there are many countries that can pay, and they can pay big league,” Trump said.
At AIPAC, Trump ended his speech by indirectly addressing concerns about his previous “neutral” comment, saying the Palestinians “must come to the table knowing that the bond between the United States [and Israel] is unbreakable.”
He also said he wants to see a peace deal, but only one Israel wants, and not one imposed upon the Jewish state by foreign powers — a position he surely knew is popular among AIPAC attendees.
“It’s really the parties that must negotiate a resolution themselves,” Trump said, to cheers. “The United States can be useful as a facilitator at negotiations, but no one should be telling Israel that it must abide by some agreement made by others thousands of miles away.”
Trump, like Kasich and Cruz, also said that as president he would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital. And one of Trump’s bigger applause lines came when he exclaimed, “Yay!” and smiled, after saying, “With President Obama in his final year … ”
On March 22, AIPAC condemned that line and also Trump’s comment that Obama “may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel, believe me, believe me.” AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus took the stage at the conference’s final general session to say, “We do not countenance ad hominem attacks, and we take great offense to those that are levied at the president of the United States of America from our stage.”
Flanked by CEO Howard Kohr and two other AIPAC leaders, she even criticized those in the crowd who applauded Trump’s criticism of Obama, which certainly sounded like a majority. “There are people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night, and for that, we are deeply sorry,” Pinkus said. “We are disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with or condone.”
Cruz, the day’s final speaker, directly followed Trump, and opened his speech with an emotional, “God bless AIPAC!” then immediately proceeded to attack the Republican front-runner. “Let me say at the outset, perhaps to the surprise of the previous speaker, Palestine has not existed since 1948,” Cruz said, referring to the two times Trump referred to “Israel and Palestine,” instead of “Israel and the Palestinians.”
The Texas senator, who is Trump’s main competitor, covered some of the leading issues on AIPAC members’ minds, including the Iran deal (which he said, as he has before, he will “rip to shreds” on his first day in office), the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (university administrations who endorse it should lose federal funding, Cruz said) and the U.S. embassy. He ended his speech by saying “Am Israel Chai!” to a standing ovation.
The prior evening, Vice President Joe Biden addressed a crowd largely dubious of the White House’s commitment to Israel’s security and Obama’s commitment to good relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden drew mostly applause from the crowd, particularly for his strong condemnation of Palestinian Authority leader Abbas for failing to condemn the recent wave of Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis. Biden also said “there is no political will” among Israelis or Palestinians to pursue any sort of peace deal at the moment.
However, he also drew some boos and jeers along with the cheers, despite AIPAC’s annual plea for respect toward all speakers, when he praised the Iran deal and criticized Netanyahu’s settlement policy.
“Israel’s government’s steady and systematic process of expanding settlements, legalizing outposts, seizing land, is eroding, in my view, the prospect of a two-state solution,” Biden told the crowd, which included Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer. “Bibi thinks it can be accommodated, and I believe he believes it. I don’t.”
On March 21, at the day’s final session, Netanyahu gave a live video address to AIPAC from Israel, in which he responded to Biden’s charge that Israel doesn’t have the political will for a peace deal. Netanyahu told the crowd he will negotiate with Abbas without preconditions. “There is political will here in Jerusalem,” the prime minister said. “There’s no political will there in Ramallah.”
Since March 11, when AIPAC confirmed Trump as a speaker, the Republican front-runner’s appearance had been not only highly anticipated, but also condemned, in particular by a group that called itself “Come Together Against Hate” (a play off “Come Together,” AIPAC’s theme for this year’s conference). The group organized a silent walkout during Trump’s appearance, as well as a protest outside the Verizon Center. The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the Reform movement’s umbrella organization, also announced soon after AIPAC confirmed Trump that it would stage a silent walkout before he took the stage, and would study Torah in the lobby and watch Trump’s speech on television screens in the arena’s corridor.
“I am very curious to know what he will say about Israel,” URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs said in an interview the day before Trump’s appearance. “But before he starts talking about Israel, we have months and months of his hateful speech about Muslims, about immigrants, about women and people with disabilities, and, frankly, he’s accountable for all of that.”
AIPAC, though, made media coverage of any walkouts during Trump’s appearance difficult.Reporters inside the Verizon Center were forbidden from interviewing attendees, and reporters could leave the media area only if accompanied by a conference staffer. As of the Journal’s press time, AIPAC’s media team did not respond to a question from the Journal about the severity of the restrictions placed on the media at this year’s conference, which were stricter than at past policy conferences, which have always included barring media from most breakout sessions.
By all available accounts, though, it seems the anticipation in advance of the walkouts was far greater than their actual impact. Only a small handful of audience members could be seen walking out as Trump approached the stage, although Jacobs, Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, and some other people tweeted photos of themselves learning Torah and watching Trump’s speech from the corridor, as promised. Just after Trump’s address, Jacobs released a short statement that said Trump addressing the U.S.-Israel relationship was “important,” but that it “seems that he does not share our values of equality, pluralism, and humility.”
“We were disappointed but not surprised that Mr. Trump did nothing tonight to allay our deep concerns about his campaign,” Jacobs said.
As happens every year at AIPAC, journalists and observers tried to draw conclusions from the level of audience applause for each speaker and each major point in every speech. This year, that endeavor seemed particularly difficult. There were few boos for any of the four presidential candidates, and each received raucous applause at various points — some during the introduction, some at the end, and all during portions of their speeches designed to address key sticking points for many AIPAC members, such as when Clinton said, “One of the first things I’ll do in office is invite the Israeli prime minister to visit the White House” — an implicit but clear acknowledgement of the cool relationship between Obama and Netanyahu.
Perhaps telling, or maybe not, the audience’s applause for Trump’s “Yay!” comment about Obama’s term expiring sounded louder than the loudest applauses for Clinton, maybe indicating how ready the conference’s attendees — who are divided between Democrats and Republicans — are for a new president who might have warmer relations with Israel’s current government.
AIPAC’s conference has taken on a larger-than-life feel in recent years, particularly since 2009, when Netanyahu began appearing in person. The combination of the prime minister’s uneasy relationship with Obama, the crumbling of peace negotiations with Abbas, the spread of Islamist terrorism, the threat of an Iranian nuclear program, the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, and the conference’s location near Capitol Hill has made the annual event a spectacle in both the Jewish and mainstream media, as evidenced by the fact that the major cable news networks televised the speeches of all four presidential candidates.
This year, the candidates’ addresses came just before another set of primaries, in which voters from both parties in Arizona and Utah — and Democrats in the Idaho caucus — were preparing to either push Trump and Clinton closer to their nomination or give hope to their challengers, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who declined AIPAC’s invitation to speak, and then was turned down by the group when he offered to speak remotely from the campaign trail.
The absence of Sanders, too, put AIPAC at the center of an increasingly obvious split within the Democratic Party between younger, more liberal voters who overwhelmingly support Sanders and tend to sympathize with the Palestinians, and older, more traditional pro-Israel Democrats who support Clinton. And in what could have been a shot at Sanders, Obama, Trump or all three, Clinton said in her speech, “Candidates for president who think the United States can outsource Middle East security to dictators, or that America no longer has vital national interests at stake in this region are dangerously wrong” — a possible critique of Sanders’ statement in January that Iranian troops could help defeat ISIS and that America should try to normalize diplomatic relations with the Iranian government.
The most obvious point to come out of the conference is this: The strength of America’s pro-Israel voice is undiminished. The AIPAC 2017 Policy Conference is already scheduled for March 26-28, and anyone who thought the group’s loss on the Iran nuclear deal might stem the Jewish and pro-Israel community’s excitement for this year’s conference, just had to witness the 18,000 people in a packed convention center and sports arena put that idea to rest.