Donald Trump sells himself as 'true friend of Israel' to Jewish group AIPAC

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Mr Trump’s speech to AIPAC was the overwhelmingly positive reaction from the crowd

Donald Trump began his appearance at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington DC by insisting he would not “pander” to his pro-Israel audience, claiming “That’s what politicians do.” But during a lengthy address designed to demonstrate the Republican front-runner’s foreign policy chops to the largest pro-Israel organisation in the US, he did little else.

Describing himself as “a lifelong supporter and true friend of Israel,” Mr Trump cited several examples of his loyalty to the Jewish state, including lending his plane to the then-Mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, to fly to Israel in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks. He also pointed out that his daughter Ivanka is due to give birth to a “beautiful, Jewish baby”.

Mr Trump even noted that he had been the Grand Marshal of New York’s “Salute to Israel” parade in 2004, during a period of sustained violence 6,000 miles away in the Middle East. “It was a very dangerous time for Israel and, frankly, for anyone supporting Israel,” said the billionaire property developer. “I took the risk and I’m glad I did.”

For the first time during his frequently improvisational White House run, Mr Trump’s speech had been prepared beforehand, and its policy substance was straight out of the Republican playbook. As President, he said he would “dismantle” the recent Iran nuclear deal, which he described as “catastrophic”, adding: “I have studied this issue in great detail... greater, by far, than anybody else.”

He also decried the “utter weakness and incompetence” of the United Nations, saying he would veto any attempts by the organisation to “impose its will” on Israel. “No one should be telling Israel it must abide by some agreement made by others thousands of miles away that don’t even really know what’s happening,” Mr Trump said.

To loud applause, he vowed to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, insisting a Trump administration would “send a clear signal that there is no daylight between America and our most reliable ally, the state of Israel.” After boasting of his lengthy acquaintance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said the two men would “be able to work closely together to bring stability and peace to Israel and to the entire region.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Mr Trump’s speech to AIPAC – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – was the overwhelmingly positive reaction from the crowd. Before his appearance, Mr Trump had been criticised by some leading rabbis for his harsh rhetoric regarding immigrants and religious groups. Other AIPAC attendees questioned previous comments in which he had said he would approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a “neutral guy”.

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Yet instead of the threatened protests, Mr Trump’s speech was met with laughter and several standing ovations, not least when he attacked the foreign policy of the current administration – and of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom he seems increasingly likely to face in the general election. Ms Clinton, he said, “is a total disaster.”

The billionaire was speaking just hours after the Democratic frontrunner had sharply criticised him in her own address to AIPAC. Though Ms Clinton did not name Mr Trump by name in her speech on Monday morning, there was little doubt to which candidate she was referring when she described his approach to foreign affairs as “dangerously wrong.” She went on: “We need steady hands. Not a president who says he’s neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday and who knows what on Wednesday because everything is negotiable.”

Ms Clinton also compared Mr Trump’s views on Muslims and other immigrants to American attitudes of the 1930s, when the US turned away some European Jews, sending them back to Nazi-occupied Europe. “America should be better than this, and it is our responsibility as citizens to say so,” she said.

Mr Trump’s GOP rivals, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and John Kasich, the Governor of Ohio, also made AIPAC appearances. Yet Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who is challenging Ms Clinton for the Democratic nomination, instead spent the day campaigning ahead of Tuesday’s primaries in Arizona, Utah and Idaho. His absence from the conference was notable, not least because he is the only Jewish candidate ever to win a presidential primary.

In a meeting with the editorial board of the Washington Post earlier on Monday, Mr Trump listed the names of his foreign policy advisory team, led by Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, an immigration hard-liner. They include Joseph Schmitz, a former inspector general of the US Defence Department under President George W Bush, and George Papadopoulos, a conservative energy consultant who previously advised Dr Ben Carson’s presidential campaign.

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