By RON KAMPEAS JTA
WASHINGTON–Hear out Donald Trump. Ignore Donald Trump.
There were two distinct approaches to the Trump moment at AIPAC’s annual conference here, and there were mutual warnings that one or the other side would get burned.
The burn came fast, and it came to those who said listening to the front-runner in the race for the Republican presidential nod was the right thing to do.
After days of repeated warnings to its activists not to disrupt Trump, and to treat speakers with respect, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee leadership issued an extraordinary apology–but not to Trump. Instead, AIPAC said it was sorry for its members who had applauded his insulting remarks about President Obama during Trump’s speech at the Verizon Center. Many members roared and leapt to their feet when Trump suggested Obama was “the worst thing to ever happen to Israel.”
“While we may have policy differences, we deeply respect the office of the president of the United States and our President Barack Obama,” Lillian Pinkus, the lobby’s newly installed president, said from the AIPAC stage, joined by other AIPAC lay and professional leaders.
“There are people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night and for that we are deeply sorry,” Pinkus said, her voice choking. “We are deeply disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with or condone.”
The evident anguish in the aftermath of Trump’s remarks undid the hopes that his speech would not undo the prominent Israel lobby’s careful claims to bipartisanship, even as its Iran policy is more or less aligned wholly with Republicans. The Trump moment came during a conference with a slogan, “Come Together,” that AIPAC had hoped would signal a new day of bipartisanship.
Complaints that the lobby had given Trump a platform at its largest annual assembly without expressing official displeasure at his most controversial remarks about immigrants and Muslims led many to wonder how AIPAC would function in an election in which the likely GOP nominee has alienated much of the organized Jewish community.
AIPAC officials said before the conference that the event would be an opportunity for Trump, derided by his rivals for speaking mostly in vagaries, to finally attach substance to his ideas. Trump’s prepared remarks included substantive and critical assessments of Obama’s Middle East policies, which AIPAC expected and indeed would have welcomed.
[Local attendees to the AIPAC Conference also faced the dilemma of whether to stay, or walk out, when Trump spoke. In a message to his congregation, Rabbi Aaron Krupnick of Cong. Beth El, wrote: “I had been asked before we came if I was going to walk out on Donald Trump. I told everyone that I firmly believe that we in the pro-Israel community must have a strong partnership with whoever wins the election and so I stayed.” He also wrote that Hillary Clinton, John Kasich, Trump, and Ted Cruz expressed “what I thought was heartfelt support for the State of Israel and each spoke unequivocally of Israel as ‘The Jewish State.’”]
Trump also softened two positions that have created unease among pro-Israel activists–insisting he would remain neutral in brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians, saying his negotiating skills as a businessman would be key to reaching a deal, and refusing 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.
His extemporized flourishes, however, typified the red meat he likes to throw out at his rallies, and many in the massive Verizon Center hall, chosen to accommodate a record-breaking 18,000 activists this year, gobbled it up.
Launching a critique of Obama’s U.N. policy, Trump started a sentence by saying, “With President Obama in his final year”–then stopped himself and said “Yay!”
Cheers, laughter and applause arose from the crowd, and not just from isolated pockets.
“He may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel, believe me, believe me,” said Trump, a billionaire real estate magnate. “And you know it and you know it better than anybody.”
The largest group advocating some form of protest ahead of Trump’s appearance, the Reform movement, sounded a note of vindication the day after his speech.
“We were disappointed but not surprised that Mr. Trump did nothing tonight to allay our deep concerns about his campaign,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, said in a statement. “It still seems that he does not share our values of equality, pluralism, and humility.”
Trump’s laceration of Obama is the last thing AIPAC needed at a time when the lobby is endeavoring to show it remains a bipartisan enterprise.
Howard Kohr, the one-time Republican operative who has led the organization for decades, alluded in his opening remarks to pressure from the right to simply give up on Democrats in the wake of the party’s almost wholesale embrace of an Iran nuclear deal that AIPAC continues to insist endangers Israel.
“There are those who question our bipartisan approach to political advocacy,” Kohr said. “Unless one party controls all branches of government forever, bipartisanship remains the only way.”
Trump spoke on a night that also included live addresses from his Republican presidential rivals, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., also addressed the throng.
There were warm welcomes for Democrats at the conference, particularly Vice President Joe Biden, the closest administration member to AIPAC, who spoke of his decades of attachment to Israel in emotional terms.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, also spoke–earlier in the day than Trump–pitching herself to his right on Israel.
“America can’t ever be neutral when it comes to Israel’s security and survival,” Clinton said to repeated cheers and applause. “Some things aren’t negotiable and anyone who doesn’t understand that has no business in being our president.”
Bernie Sanders, the Independent from Vermont challenging Clinton for the Democratic nod, did not attend because he was in the West ahead of three primaries in the region. He offered to deliver remarks via video link but was rejected by AIPAC. Sanders did deliver the remarks–at a Utah rally–with his consistent message of support for Israel tempered by criticism of its actions on settlements and in waging war.
(Voice Editor David Portnoe contributed to this article.)