WASHINGTON -- Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump promised 18,000 attendees at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference Monday evening that he wouldn't pander to them about Israel.
“That’s what politicians do. All talk, no action,” Trump told the pro-Israel lobbying group.
Then he spent the next 25 minutes pandering to Israel.
The real estate tycoon offered the usual Republican Party bromides: The Iran nuclear deal was terrible, the United Nations was an anti-Israel joke, and the Palestinians were to blame for the failure to reach a two-state solution. But what set him apart from other presidential hopefuls, who aren't rhetorically all that different, was the shallowness of his pander. Listing various failed efforts at reaching a two-state solution, Trump sounded as if he was reading an abridged version of the Wikipedia page on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The speech was billed as the self-proclaimed billionaire’s first scripted, focused foreign policy address, coming hours after he revealed his foreign policy team, which includes a former Blackwater executive and a former adviser to a Lebanese warlord.
In a shift from his usual meandering, unscripted riffs, Trump largely adhered to the pre-drafted speech his campaign released in advance -- with the exception of a dozen repetitions of "believe me," apparently added to emphasize the trueness of his commitment. And while he managed not to drift into blanket denigrations of any gender, nationality or religion, his speech was largely a list of problems facing Israel, an insistence that President Barack Obama is to blame, and a promise to solve everything. He didn't explain how he would do so.
It was a speech just unsophisticated enough to inspire bipartisan shoulder-shrugging.
“It was really a recitation of canned Republican talking points, designed to get applause from the crowd he was talking to,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal pro-Israel group, J Street, said after the speech.
“As a policy speech, it’s meaningless,” conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, a Trump critic, said on Fox News. “I don’t think it gives you any idea of what he would do as president.”
Indeed, if a Trump doctrine emerged from the AIPAC address, it was to trust in Trump. He said he earned his chops by agreeing to march in the Salute to Israel Parade in 2004 in New York as the grand marshal. “It was a very dangerous time for Israel, and frankly for anyone supporting Israel -- many people turned down this honor. I did not, I took the risk,” Trump said.
And on Monday, he asked attendees to give him a chance to reshape the Middle East.
On Iran, Trump said his first priority is to “dismantle” the deal that has downsized Iran’s nuclear infrastructure to the point where it incapable of producing a nuclear weapon, reversing his earlier calls to strictly enforce the nuclear agreement between Iran, the U.S., and other nations. But he didn't explain what he would do to prevent Iranians from moving to acquire a nuclear weapon in the absence of the international agreement. And later in the speech, he went off script and said, "We will enforce it like you’ve never seen a contract enforced before, folks, believe me.”
On issue of confronting Iran’s support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, Trump’s prescription was comforting, perhaps, but comically simplistic. “We will totally dismantle Iran’s global terror network, which is big and powerful, but not powerful like us … We will work to dismantle that reach," he assured the crowd, adding, "believe me, believe me.”
On the stalled peace process between Israelis and Palestinians -- a complex geopolitical crisis with inflamed religious tensions and a long history of bloodshed that has vexed numerous presidents -- Trump's recipe for a breakthrough was his own strategic brilliance.
“Deals are made when parties come together, they come to a table and they negotiate," he explained. "Each side must give up something.” But aside from boasting about his book Trump: The Art of the Deal, he gave no explanation how he would broker a compromise. His only concrete proposal on how he would advance a two-state solution is to use American veto power at the United Nations Security Council “100 percent” to block any resolution that lays out the parameters for an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.
Though Trump's speech was vague enough to confuse, his mere appearance was enough to offend some. Just before he took the stage, several rabbis stood up and silently exited the massive Verizon Center sports arena, congregating outside to study Jewish texts about human dignity.
“This particular candidate has crossed such lines of bigotry, racism, and xenophobia, of misogyny, that are out of bounds,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who was among the rabbis who walked out. “He’s legitimating hate. And we are the Jews … who have the memory of the Holocaust and the memory of the refugee experience. We can’t stand idly by.”
Pesner, like other objecting rabbis, insisted his gripe is with Trump, not AIPAC, which, as a lobbying organization, has reason to nurture ties with anyone who could be the next president. (The group made an exception in 2012, when it did not invite GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul because of his opposition to foreign aid to Israel.)
Others, however, said the organization did a disservice by allowing Trump to speak.
“Over the last few months, Trump has preyed on people’s fear and anger, pointing the finger at different groups, whether it be Latinos, Muslims, or women across the United States,” said Ethan Miller, a spokesman for If If Not Now, a Jewish group that organized a protest against Trump and AIPAC’s decision to host him. “As Jews, we know the consequences of blaming one group for the ills of society -- the fact that AIPAC was welcoming him with open arms, we knew we had to speak up and make sure our voices are heard too.”
Stephen Spitz, a 69-year-old Jewish man based in Virginia, tagged along with the If Not Now protesters carrying a sign of his own, which read, “Love Trumps Hate," a quote he attributed to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a Democratic presidential candidate.
“That is anathema -- should be anathema -- to any American who understands what this country was based on. It doesn’t matter what the religion, once you go down that road, you change the whole nature of the country,” Spitz said.