WASHINGTON (JTA) – Donald Trump, staking out a pro-Israel position that had nary a mention of neutrality, earned an enthusiastic response to his speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual conference.
The real estate billionaire and front-runner for the Republican U.S. presidential nomination, speaking Monday to the AIPAC conference, softened two positions that have created unease among pro-Israel activists – his insistence on remaining “neutral” in brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace and his refusal to commit to recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
On Jerusalem, Trump vowed to move the American embassy to the city, “the eternal capital of the Jewish people.” And he said the Palestinians must accept as a given the closeness of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
“The Palestinians must come to the table knowing that the bond between the United States and Israel is absolutely unbreakable,” Trump said. “They must come to the table willing to accept that Israel is a Jewish state and it will exist forever as a Jewish state.”
Trump opponents who had said they would protest the speech because of his broadsides against minorities and his sanctioning of political violence were not visible during his speech, which earned repeated standing ovations.
Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of pro-Israel orthodoxy appeared to resonate with the AIPAC activists in the Verizon Center arena, and the loud applause was not the only indication. Immediately following Trump’s speech, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, his closest rival in the presidential race, scored Trump for pledging neutrality on Israel and for not promising to “shred” the Iran deal upon election. Both gibes fell flat.
Trump delivered broadsides against his likely rival in the general election, Hillary Clinton, calling her a “total disaster” and blaming her for last year’s Iran nuclear deal.
The line earned laughter and applause, although Clinton’s speech, earlier in the day, was well received.
His rhetorical flourishes at the United Nations’ expense were crowd pleasers too.
“The United Nations is not a friend of democracy. It’s not a friend to freedom. It’s not a friend even to the United States of America, where as all know, it has its home. And it surely isn’t a friend to Israel,” he said.
Trump’s biggest applause line was when he began a sentence, “With President Obama, in his final year – yay!”
AIPAC led opposition last year to the Iran nuclear deal and clashed repeatedly with the Obama administration in its unsuccessful bid to get Congress to nix the deal.
In her speech, Clinton earned applause for decrying Trump’s insults during his campaign against Mexicans, Muslims and others.
Trump, in his AIPAC speech, notably avoided some of the generalizations he has used to describe ethnic and religious groups.
However, earlier in the day, Trump said Israel should pay for defense aid it receives from the U.S.
At a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday, the Republican U.S> presidential front-runner was asked whether he believed the Israeli government should pay for American defense, as he had called for other U.S. allies, such as 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 responded.
The real estate billionaire went on to focus on the other countries, saying calling in debts would help “build wealth.”
The U.S. has long maintained a special security relationship with Israel. The countries are in the midst of negotiating a new defense package said to be worth tens of billions of dollars over 10 years. Israel currently receives $3.1 billion a year from Washington, most of which is required to be spent in the U.S.