When a politician tells you he or she is not there to pander to the audience, duck. The pander is about to fly in all directions.
That’s the way it was Monday when an estimated 18,000 delegates to the AIPAC Policy Conference came to listen to a quartet of presidential contenders telling the audience pretty much what they came to hear: Nobody loves Israel more than I do.
It was Donald Trump who said, “I didn’t come here tonight to pander to you about Israel,” but that’s just what he did. The strong applause confirmed what AIPAC critics alleged: that the pro-Israel lobby group, focused only on getting politicians to echo their major talking points, is irrelevant to most American Jews, and distasteful to many.
He dropped his prior claims of neutrality that once got boos from a wealthy Republican Jewish audience and, calling himself “a lifelong supporter and true friend of Israel,” said he will now side with the Jewish state in negotiations with the Palestinians, recognize Jerusalem as the nation’s “eternal” capital, and move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv.
When have we heard that before?
Earlier in the day Hillary Clinton got an enthusiastic reception when she hit Trump on his neutrality. Israel needs “a president with steady hands, not one who’s pro-Israel on Monday, neutral on Tuesday, and who-knows-what on Wednesday.”
Speaking of the rise of anti-Semitism and the BDS movement, she apparently also had Trump in mind when she said, “If you see bigotry, oppose it. If you see violence, condemn it. And if you see a bully, stand up to him. Let us never be silent in the face of bigotry.”
John Kasich took a similar tack when, in his self-declared role as the “only adult” among the GOP candidates, said, “I will not take the lowest road to the highest office in the land. I will not do it.”
Trump’s pro-Israel credentials apparently consist of being in a Salute to Israel parade in 2004 — which to everyone’s bewilderment he called a risky and dangerous act — a campaign commercial he once did for Bibi Netanyahu, and the impending birth of his third Jewish grandchild.
He didn’t bother telling the AIPAC group that a few hours earlier he had told reporters that he would demand Israel and other countries reimburse the United States for foreign aid they received.
Trump did not get the fervent reception he is used to because the crowd was wary of him and because he was not allowed to pack the arena with his partisans. Nor did he get the cold reception and walk-outs that critics had called for.
Some of his best applause lines came in response to his trademark personal attacks. He called Clinton “a total disaster” and said that “she and President Obama have treated Israel very, very badly.”
Obama-bashing was almost as popular as Arab bashing. The president is AIPAC’s favorite target since he out-maneuvered the group’s multi-million-dollar lobbying campaign to scuttle the Iranian nuclear deal.
Trump’s presentation was a rare scripted speech with only a few ad-libs as he tried to sound presidential.
Kasich, who has more experience than his rivals after 18 years in Congress (I can attest to his pro-Israel record from working with him while I was AIPAC’s legislative director), understands the issues and the process best of the trio. He said that unlike his competitors, “I won’t need on-the-job training.”
Ted Cruz called himself “a leading defender of Israel” in the Senate, which is strange since he has no friends and little influence in that body. He started out by invoking Purim, which begins this week, and comparing today’s Iranian leaders to Persian rulers in the time of Haman, something not altogether unfair.
Clinton has more experience and nuanced command of the issues than the others combined, and it showed — she got the best response of all the candidates. All four speakers sought to appear presidential, but Clinton clearly rose above the others.
She didn’t mention Trump by name although he was the target of many of her barbs. And she also had some criticism of Obama, clearly trying to put some space between them.
She spoke of an “unwavering, unshakable commitment” to Israel and the need for “positive steps to restore trust.” For starters, she said she would very early on invite the Israeli prime minister to a White House meeting as she seeks to “take this alliance to a new level.”
She got a tepid response when she spoke of the need to “step up our efforts” to seek peace between Israel and the Palestinians, a topic the other candidates largely avoided.
The biggest (unwanted) laugh of the evening came when Trump said, “I’ve studied this [Iran nuclear] issue in…greater [detail] by far than anybody else. Believe me.” The scariest words also came from Trump: “When I am president.”
AIPAC took a lot of heat for inviting a candidate who has built a campaign on racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and unrestrained anger. Trump’s friendly reception offered a kind of hechsher to the GOP frontrunner — something that will widen the chasm between AIPAC and a Jewish electorate that is generally appalled by his meteoric rise.
And if the AIPACers genuinely believe Trump’s scripted speech means he’s had a change of heart about the Jewish state, they haven’t been paying attention.