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Despite Threats of Protests, Donald Trump Wins Over the Pro-Israel Crowd at AIPAC

Trump was warmly received, delivering an unusually scripted speech from a teleprompter before the nation's largest gathering of pro-Israel activists.
Photo by Shawn Thew/EPA

Less than two weeks ago, Donald Trump was nearly booed off the Republican debate stage in Florida for having the audacity to say he would be "neutral" in any negotiations between Israel and Palestine. But when he spoke to a cheering crowd at the annual American Israel Political Affairs Committee (or AIPAC) conference Monday evening, he seemed to have changed his tone.

And in the words of Jewish Insider's political reporter Jacob Kornbluh, the crowd ate it up like "hot lukshen kugel" (a traditional Jewish dish).


"I didn't come here tonight to pander to you about Israel," Trump said in opening his speech. "That's what politicians do: all talk, no action."

Trump promised to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal, move the American embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and "send a clear signal that there is no daylight between America and our most reliable ally, the state of Israel." In other words, Trump sounded a lot like every other presidential candidate who spoke on the AIPAC stage on Monday.

"When I become President, the days of treating Israel like a second-class citizen will end on Day One," Trump said to a cheering crowd. "I will meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately. I have known him for many years and we will be able to work closely together to help bring stability and peace to Israel and to the entire region."

Trump devoted the bulk of his address to Iran, telling the assembled crowd of pro-Israel activists and lobbyists that he has studied the issue both "in great detail" and more "than anyone else." Trump, who has consistently been critical of the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran (which Hillary Clinton helped to set in motion as secretary of state) said that his "number one priority" would be to dismantle the "disastrous" deal.

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"I have been in business a long time. I know deal-making. And let me tell you, this deal is catastrophic for America, for Israel and for the whole of the Middle East," he said.


Many political spectators were expecting Trump to be met with wariness from the AIPAC audience. Trump's hesitation to disavow support from white supremacists, bombastic comments about religious minorities and his previous remarks about staying neutral in negotiations with the Palestinians have not exactly endeared him to the pro-Israel crowd. The last time he spoke to a group of Jewish leaders, at the Republican Jewish Coalition in December, he made a comment about being "a negotiator, just like you." This was seen as insensitive reiteration of a Jewish stereotype and drew a chilly response.

Trump's appearance at the conference was controversial enough that a group of rabbis said last week they were planning on walking out in protest. Another group of Jewish religious leaders told Politico they would be seated inside wearing "Rabbis Against Trump" buttons.

But Trump was met with no such walkouts or disruptions on Monday. On the contrary, he received wild cheers from the audience and at times had to pause to wait for quiet before he could continue.

"I love the people in this room. I love Israel. I love Israel." Trump said toward the end of his speech. "My father before me, incredible. My daughter, Ivanka, is about to have a beautiful, Jewish baby."

The love between Trump and the Jewish crowd was not the not the only surprising thing about his AIPAC speech. Trump took the unusual step — for him— of delivering prepared remarks. This is a notable shift for the frontrunner, who almost never reads from a teleprompter and instead prefers to speak freely off the cuff when he gives his speeches. His decision to change tactics tonight indicated that perhaps he was taking the speech and his role as the likely Republican nominee more seriously — and wanted everyone watching to do the same.


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Outside of AIPAC was a different story. Anti-Trump demonstrators gathered to protest his speech, alongside several anti-war and pro-Palestinian groups as well.

Small group from — Shaquille Brewster (@shaqbrewster)March 21, 2016

Progressive are not shy about taunting Jews with nazi imagery. — Progressives Today (@ProgsToday)March 21, 2016

About 20 minutes after Trump finished his speech Monday, his rival, Senator Ted Cruz, took the stage. Trump is always a tough act to follow but it was clear Cruz was not planning on having to compete with him for affection from the AIPAC crowd. Cruz is one of the most hawkish candidates on the Republican side and he has hammered Trump repeatedly in the past on his pro-Israel chops.

Cruz wasted no time in going after Trump. "Perhaps to the surprise of the previous speaker, Palestine has not existed since 1948," Cruz said, referring to Trump's previous comments that Palestine was formed alongside the creation of Israel.

Cruz also added that unlike Trump, he would refuse to remain neutral in any negotiations involving Israel. But the rest of Cruz's speech sounded fairly similar when it came to actually policy. Like Trump, Cruz vowed to rip up the Iran deal, move the American embassy to Jerusalem and remain a staunchly loyal ally to Israel.

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Ohio Governor John Kasich, who is trailing far behind the two candidates for the Republican nomination, also spoke at the conference on Monday. Like Hillary Clinton earlier in the day, Kasich made several oblique references to Trump in his AIPAC speech and also highlighted his positive campaign. "I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land," he said.

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928