WASHINGTON — Standing in the midst of a vast arena in downtown Washington, Donald Trump stared into the two small screens before him and read the words he had come to deliver to a skeptical audience at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual meeting.
“I didn’t come here tonight to pander to you about Israel,” Trump said carefully, as the words rolled across the screen. “That’s what politicians do – all talk, no action.”
But while Trump’s past statements, including his promise to be “neutral” in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, have caused concern among pro-Israel activists, he offered promises Monday very much in line with what the audience had hoped to hear. At times, he brought the crowd to its feet.
He lambasted the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by President Barack Obama, who he noted was “in his final year, yay.” He pledged to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel to the “eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.” And he seemed to paper over his past statements about neutrality, promising that in any negotiation, “we will send a clear signal that there is no daylight between America and our most reliable ally, the state of Israel.”
It was an unusual scene for Trump, who has largely eschewed scripts and tends to speak in front of adoring crowds at raucous rallies. Appearing more subdued than usual, Trump stuck closely to his message. On several occasions, his own words appeared to contradict his past statements – including some he had made just hours earlier.
Trump’s AIPAC appearance served as a test of sorts as he tries to morph his anti-establishment campaign into one that can gain support from at least some of Washington’s traditional Republican leadership. He held a private meeting with GOP lawmakers ahead of his AIPAC speech – part of a process in which a candidate who has largely rejected the party’s orthodoxy might achieve party unity.
Earlier in the day, Trump was attacked by Democratic presidential front-runner and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton for suggesting in past interviews that he would remain neutral in negotiating the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
“We need steady hands,” Clinton told AIPAC, referring to the business mogul but not naming him. “Not a president who says he’s neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday, and who knows what on Wednesday because everything is negotiable.
“Well, my friends, Israel’s security is nonnegotiable!” she said.
Clinton – who has at times been at the center of foreign policy decisions opposed by Israel – set a hawkish tone but saved much of her most forceful rhetoric for Trump.
“You’ll get a glimpse of a potential U.S. foreign policy that would insult our allies, not engage them, and embolden our adversaries, not defeat them,” Clinton said. “For the security of Israel and the world, we need America to remain a respected global leader, committed to defending and advancing the international order.”
In the days before Trump’s scheduled appearance at AIPAC, a group of rabbis called for a boycott of his speech, and the prominent Jewish civil rights organization the Anti-Defamation League strongly denounced Trump’s rhetoric and said it would “redirect” all of his past donations to the league.
But as Trump denounced Iran’s missile tests and pledged to confront murders at the hands of “knife-wielding Palestinians,” many in the audience appeared to warm to his message, and any walkouts were either called off or went unnoticed.
Earlier in the day, Trump told The Washington Post’s editorial board that he supported a non-interventionist foreign policy focused on reducing the United States’s engagement in conflicts abroad to facilitate rebuilding infrastructure and the economy at home.
At AIPAC, however, Trump focused on reiterating positions largely in line with the current U.S. policies and acceptable to most prominent pro-Israel advocates.
He denounced the United Nations and rejected rumors that Obama might try to lay out some bedrock conditions for a peace settlement, either through a speech, a diplomatic push or a U.N. Security Council resolution.
Two other Republican presidential candidates – Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio – also spoke at the group’s annual conference on Monday and made their support for Israel and opposition to the Iran deal a centerpiece of their remarks. Clinton’s chief Democratic rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, was the only major candidate who skipped the AIPAC meeting.
To a rousing standing ovation, Kasich called for the suspension of the nuclear deal in response to missile tests by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
He focused on his years serving on the House Armed Services committee during President Ronald Reagan’s tenure, a dig at his opponents in the Republican race.
“As the candidate in this race with the deepest and most far-reaching foreign policy experience, I don’t need on-the-job training,” Kasich said. “I have lived these matters for decades.”
Cruz took the stage with a shot at Trump, saying his use of the term “Palestine” to refer to territory occupied by Israel was incorrect. “Palestine has not existed since 1948,” Cruz said.
But he focused his remarks more on what he said were the policy failures of Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State John Kerry than on his Republican rivals, saying that the Democratic front-runner failed to understand that Hamas used civilian sites to protect its weaponry at the cost of human lives.
“Let me be very, very clear. As president, I will not be neutral,” Cruz said, in another shot aimed at Trump.
The prospect of Trump’s speaking spot at AIPAC has a been a source of controversy, largely because of the businessman’s rhetoric singling out immigrants and calling for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.
Outside the sports arena in downtown Washington, about 200 protesters congregated in three clusters, holding anti-Trump signs and chanting “Dump Trump.”
Lori Bernstein held up a sign saying “Jews Against Trump – Because We’ve Seen This Before.” The 57-year-old scientist says she doesn’t take Holocaust comparisons lightly because her grandparents had their house ransacked during the Nazis’ Kristallnacht pogrom and fled to France, while other extended relatives perished.
But she said she has been deeply disturbed by the Republican front-runner condoning and apparent encouraging violence against protesters, as well as what she sees as demonizing minorities.
“This is the lens I see the world through,” said Bernstein, a Montgomery Village, Maryland, resident. “What’s unfolding is a progression that’s very worrisome for me.”
The Washington Post’s Fenit Nirappil, Carol Morello, Dave Weigel, and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.