The last time Donald Trump gave a speech to conservative Jews, he praised their skills at bargaining, criticized Shabbat, and suggested that his audience wouldn’t support him because Jews prefer politicians they can buy off with donations. On Monday night at AIPAC’s annual conference, the GOP front-runner kept things far more kosher. Trump opened his speech by saying, “I’m not here to pander to you about Israel.” As with so many of the Donald’s statements, this turned out to be less than true.
The GOP front-runner touted his experience in defending Israel — experience that apparently consists of lending Rudy Giuliani his plane and heroically agreeing to serve as the grand marshal of a pro-Israel parade in 2004. He then pledged his animosity for AIPAC’s sworn enemies — Iran, the United Nations, and Barack Obama.
“My number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran,” Trump said. “The problem here is fundamental. We’ve rewarded the leading sponsor of terror. And we’ve received absolutely nothing in return.”
“The United Nations is not a friend to democracy,” the mogul continued. “It is not a friend to freedom. It is not a friend to the United States … and it is surely not a friend to Israel.”
Finally, Trump declared Obama’s election to be a greater catastrophe for the Israeli people than the Second Intifada, saying, “[Obama] may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel, and you know it better than anybody.”
Trump went on to decry the rabid anti-Semitism in Palestinian culture, laud Israel’s generous offers during prior negotiations, and promise to move America’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which he called “the eternal capital of the Jewish people.” Trump concluded by reminding AIPAC that some of his best grandkids are Jewish.
The reception, which included multiple standing ovations, was considerably more friendly than many had anticipated. Still, it’s far from clear that Trump’s speech will fix his problem with Jewish voters. According to Politico, Trump hoped his speech would quell concerns that he lacks “the policy chops and intellectual curiosity to be commander in chief.” But Trump’s problem with hard-line pro-Israel voters may be less about ignorance than it is about heresy. At a news conference ahead of Trump’s appearance at AIPAC, the Donald raised the possibility of eliminating American aid to the Jewish state, saying, “There are many countries that can pay, and they can pay big-league.” One of AIPAC’s primary reasons for existing is to lobby for foreign aid to Israel.
Hours earlier, Clinton had accused Trump of being insufficiently committed to Israel’s security interests. Trump had previously said that he would be “neutral” in negotiations between Israel and Palestinians over the two-state solution. In a saner political climate, this statement would be uncontroversial — is the American president supposed to officially promise that he or she will be biased in negotiations? If the United States isn’t officially “neutral,” why would any Palestinian authority agree to have America broker an agreement? Nonetheless, Clinton made much hay of Trump’s alleged gaffe.
“America can’t ever be neutral when it comes to Israel’s security or survival,” Clinton said. “We can’t be neutral when rockets rain down on residential neighborhoods, when civilians are stabbed in the street, when suicide bombers target the innocent. Some things aren’t negotiable. And anyone who doesn’t understand that has no business being our president.”
To the extent that Trump has a foreign-policy worldview, it is diametrically opposed to the neoconservatism favored by AIPAC. In an interview with the Washington Post on Monday, Trump articulated an “unabashedly non-interventionist” global strategy. Trump told the paper that the United States should not be in the business of nation-building, saying, “I watched as we built schools in Iraq and they’re blown up. We build another one, we get blown up. We rebuild it three times and yet we can’t build a school in Brooklyn. We have no money for education because we can’t build in our own country.”
The GOP front-runner suggested that the United States’ involvement in NATO may need to be diminished. “We certainly can’t afford to do this anymore,” Trump told the Post. “NATO is costing us a fortune, and yes, we’re protecting Europe with NATO, but we’re spending a lot of money.”
With the American Jewish community more broadly, Trump’s primary liability isn’t his muddled stances on Israel, but certain historical associations that his Muslim ban and praise of mob violence can invite. At AIPAC, a group of rabbis reportedly walked out on Trump’s speech to study passages of the Torah focused on tolerance outside the Verizon Center.